On Tulips

The story of the craze for tulips in the 17th century, Tulipomania, is well documented and oft repeated.  Suffice to say, that favoured, single tulip bulbs were selling for thousands of pounds/dollars before the tulip ‘bubble’ crashed.  Today, we are fortunate in having many hundreds of varieties in an unimaginable range of colours and forms to choose from and at remarkably low prices.Hidcote - tulips in the Old Garden copyright

Over the years, my work has taken me to gardens of all sizes and styles, from formal parterres attached to country estate houses to ‘pocket handkerchiefs’, to planting thousands in grassland to planting a score or less in pots.  It has given me the opportunity to experiment with colour as well as variety.  Below are some of my favourites.

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The formal parterres of this Victorian Italianate garden (by Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament) required very restrained planting both in colour and quantity.  Here, I used the variety ‘Spring Green’, which stands well even in harsh weather conditions. After flowering, the bulbs were lifted and dried off to be replanted again later in the year.  It is always desirable to do this as it helps to prevent disease and deterioration of the bulbs.  In practice, it is often easier just to leave them and add a few additional bulbs each autumn to bulk up the numbers, especially when time is short.Kiddington Hall 2001 copyright

Also in a large estate garden but at the opposite end of the style and colour spectrum, three thousand red (‘Bing Crosby’) and white (‘Diana’) tulips were planted on a meadow bank.  Tulips when planted in grassland deteriorate very rapidly – to maintain this display new bulbs were added each year.  However, they do look very beautiful when grown this way – try the almost black tulip ‘Queen of Night’ with blue Camassia bulbs for a magical combination.Tulips bing crosby & diana in grass copyright

Even when planting smaller beds, cramming in as many bulbs as is possible between other plants makes for a beautiful display.  This stunning border was only one metre wide and four in length but there was still room to have plenty of early colour from ‘Purple Prince’ and the lighter ‘Candy Prince’.Tulips Purple Prince & Candy Prince copyright

For formal displays a bed of tulips takes a lot of beating.  They can be single coloured as in this image of pink tulips under-planted with yellow wallflowers (seen at Glasnevin Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland) or mixed colours and planted so densely that no other plants were necessary or desirable (seen at Lismore Castle, Ireland).Tulips - pink copyrightTulips Lismore Castle copyright

For those of us with limited space and budgets, tulips grown in pots are ideal for we can still cram the bulbs in to give a magnificent display.  The images below show how the first layer of bulbs are placed before a second layer is planted above them.  Avoid planting directly over the first bulbs by leaving their tips showing – this will give the bulbs space to develop with much better results.  Top up the plants with potting compost and nature will do the rest; it couldn’t be simpler!  I like to use the more ‘exotic’ looking varieties in pots as the blooms, by being lifted closer to the eye, give more opportunity to admire their spectacular detail.Planting tulips copyrightPlanting tulips in pots copyright

Perhaps the easiest of all tulips to grow are the wild species* and their varieties.  Their delicacy of size belies their toughness.  If they like you, they will increase in number year after year.

 

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Tulipa ‘Peppermint Stick’

 

 

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Tulipa acuminata

All tulips benefit from being planted as late in the year as possible, November is ideal but even if later they will still flower.  The pot grown ‘Green Eyes’ were planted mid-January this year and have just finished flowering.  They will be planted in the garden in due course to flower again next spring.

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Tulip ‘Green Eyes’

 

In England, tulips are flowering at their best right now: take the opportunity to visit open gardens to see which ones you like best.  Make notes of their names so that you can order the bulbs when the catalogues drop through the letter box mid-July.

*always ensure that any bulb is purchased from a reputable source and have not been gathered from the wild.

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The Fortune in Your Garden

The garden in winter; not the place where many of us loiter.  Instead we race back to the house for a nice, warming cup of tea.  On the way, we catch the scent from the Mahonia bush that thrives year after year on neglect.  Hinting of lily-of-the-valley, it’s fragrant, primrose yellow sprays of flowers will continue to give pleasure until the spring, as will the white, winter-flowering honeysuckle.  We stop just long enough to pick a few sprigs of jasmine, also pale yellow, to put in a vase.  The list of so many of our favourite plants could go on and on.

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Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum

What do all these plants have in common apart from being easy to grow?  They were all collected by a dour Scotsman in the mid-nineteenth century, Robert Fortune.  Despite being garden favourites and he being heralded as one of the heroes of the Victorians his name today is all but forgotten.  Even more remarkable, his discoveries changed society’s values, values that we now take for granted.  And the cup of tea?   Before Robert Fortune’s expedition to China, tea was an expensive commodity drunk only by the privileged few; soon it was to become the everyday drink of the masses.

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Tea plantation

In 1843, having shown great ability as a plantsman, first in Edinburgh and then at Chiswick, Fortune was sent to China with the instruction to learn about the practice of using bonemeal and to collect “tea of differing qualities.”  Commissioned for twelve months with a salary of £100 plus expenses, he proved so successful that he travelled for almost twenty years.  Upon his arrival, he disliked both China and the Chinese intensely; their dislike of him (and foreigners, in general) was even greater.  They refused to tell him where to find plants.

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Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, another Fortune introduction

Fortune, although rude and unsmiling, was also brave and on numerous occasions had to fend off thieves and pirates.  Confined to his cabin, ill with a fever, his boat was abandoned and he was left to face his forty attackers singlehandedly.  Firing into their midst he survived both the attack and the fever and continued to Shanghai.  There he discovered the ‘Japanese’ Anemone, Anemone japonica, growing in great profusion on disturbed graves.  Now popular in the autumn border, anyone who has tried to eradicate it knows that the brittle root breaks to regrow in even larger numbers.  The graveyard story gave us ample warning of this.

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Japanese Anemone

It is for tea that Robert Fortune really deserves greater recognition.  The gardens of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, were closely guarded by the Chinese.  On a further expedition to China and disguised as a peasant, complete with shaved head and pigtail, he succeeded in sending over 100,000 seeds and seedlings to the East India Company.  It was the foundation of an industry that would create great wealth for both individuals and Britain and reinforced the British belief in Empire.

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Apart from the ‘tea’ camellia, Robert Fortune also introduced a number of ornamental varieties

The winter-flowering Mahonia was also collected at this time.  Believed to have magical properties it was almost unobtainable; in consequence, the entire stock of Mahonia in Europe and the USA descend from just three small plants.  During Fortune’s fourth and final visit to China, Japan in 1859 opened its borders for the first time.  One of the first Europeans to enter the country he collected large numbers of plants then unknown to Europe, including many types of chrysanthemum.

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The purple berries of Mahonia appear after flowering

Robert Fortune’s legacy didn’t stop with the plants he introduced.  The wonder his plants created when exhibited in London established the international reputation of the Horticultural Society as the centre of excellence.  As the plants began to be distributed amongst the big, country estates the gentry started to take an interest in the growing of the plants themselves, something hitherto unknown.  Soon they began to assist and then direct their garden staff, culminating in the revolutionary style of Gertrude Jekyll.  Her approach is still a major influence on garden style and practice today.  This, in turn, led to even greater demand for plants.  To meet these needs, the horticultural industry worldwide is now a multi-billion pound industry.  Amongst the thousands of plant types propagated for sale each year, Robert Fortune’s introductions are amongst the most popular and enduring.

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Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ whose flowers start with a deep pink bud before slowly fading to apricot

recommended reading:

A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, Robert Fortune, 1852

Life in the English Country House, M Girouard, 1979

The Plant Hunters, T Whittle, 1970

The Plant Hunters, C Lyte, 1983

and, of course, Wikipedia

We Built a Pond – you can too!

Winter is an ideal time to create a pond and with it fast approaching now is the time to start planning.  Quite probably you have an idea where you want to place it but do think about its position carefully.  Falling leaves from trees is an obvious issue but some others aren’t until it is too late. Water always collects at the given lowest point; a pond perched on top of a mound will look ridiculous so check where the lowest point in your garden is and create the pond there, remodelling other sections of the garden, if need be, to tie in. bulrush-copyright

With our proposed pond site, we already had a large depression where garden rubbish and junk had been thrown for years.  Now overgrown with scrub, it needed careful clearing, including roots that may have punctured the lining.  If space is tight, the pond should have a planting shelf set several inches below water level, around at least one third of its edge; if space permits a graduated slope to the pond encourages plants to spread more naturally and, to my mind, is preferable.pond-build-1-copyright

If access allows, it is sensible to hire a digger to create the pond for even a small one involves a lot of digging and moving of soil.  In the past, the mound was often left behind with a few rocks, or even worse, bits of broken concrete, to create a rockery.  This very rarely works well and it looks far better to have lawn leading down to the pond with possibly shrubs or other plants surrounding it.  Whatever the choice, it is important to have a seamless transition from water to garden.  Iris work well for this as there are varieties that will grow in shallow water and on the moist soil surrounding it; some reeds, too, will colonise the bank giving the pond that natural look.pond-build-3-copyright

When using a lining it is important to allow a decent overhang onto dry land.  In this photo, the lining has been cut a little on the tight side – the weight of the water pulled the liner down into position; it is better to trim the liner after the pond has filled.  Once that has been done the liner can be disguised by laying turf down the sides to just below water level.  Once grown, it creates a beautifully natural appearance to the pool.pond-lining-2-copyright

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In the spring, aquatic plants can be planted.  Oxygenating plants grow below water level and apart from being essential, make good cover for fish and insects from predators.  Marginal plants grow in shallow water and are used for lining the edges of the pool.  A thick planting of these are a good safety measure if small children are likely to visit, although they should never be allowed to do so unsupervised.  Water lilies grow in different depths of water so do make sure that the variety you choose is suitable for the depth of the pond. pond-5-copyright

 

Ponds, however large, never need to be exceptionally deep, rarely more than a metre and can be as little as 50cms.  Smaller ponds benefit from a deeper ‘hole’ so that fish can take shelter from the coldest weather.  It is worth remembering that the larger the pond the easier it is to maintain and keep healthy.  Finally, once the plants have established, fish can be added.  For a wildlife pond, ornamental goldfish should be avoided although some of our smaller native fish can be included.

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Koi Carp are best kept by enthusiasts!

 

 

It is always a surprise at how quickly new plantings grow in a garden and the pond is no exception.  The scars of our pond had healed within months and even after just a couple of years ponds can look as if they have been there for ever.  Now twenty years later, visitors to our garden find it hard to believe that the pond isn’t natural; it abounds with wildlife and there isn’t an inch of black butyl liner to be seen.pond-2-copyright

The pond featured here was built in the large garden of the house that I claim to be my birthright (joke).  Correspondingly, the pond also had to be large but the principles of pond design and placement are the same whatever their size.

To read about the bizarre coincidences that cause me to ‘claim’ the house click on these links:

The House My Parents Built – 200 Years Ago

Reincarnation – or just Coincidence?

 

Butterflies in the Garden

It is telling that when Richard South, the eminent entomologist, wrote The Butterflies of the British Isles in 1906 he stated that “half of our native butterflies are so widely distributed that the collector should secure nearly all of them in his first season.”  Today, that would almost certainly be impossible and, fortunately, the collecting of butterflies, along with the collecting of bird’s eggs, is largely a thing of the past.

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Common Blue Butterfly

 

Butterflies, as well as many other insects, have become increasingly scarce for the wildflower meadows that many rely upon for breeding success have been lost with changes in farming practice.  Since South’s day 97% of our meadows have disappeared either to the plough or by the use of fertilisers and chemicals to ‘improve’ the grassland.

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Pyramidal orchids flowering in a traditional meadow

 

Where wild flowers thrive – in protected meadows, organic farms and odd corners of the landscape – butterflies can still be found, although rarely in great profusion.  Gardeners can be of great help when it comes to conserving wildlife and by allowing some of our native species to grow in our gardens we are able to see a number of butterflies at close proximity.  I will shortly be writing an article on growing wild flowers in the garden so, as they say, watch this space…

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Gatekeeper Butterfly on Wild Scabious

 

In the secret valley, we are fortunate in having a number of unimproved meadows and banks, deserted drove roads and flower-rich roadside verges, all of which means that butterflies readily come into our garden.  Even in town gardens a limited number of species will gradually appear and increase in number.

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The wild Geranium pratense is common throughout the Cotswolds and readily available to buy as a garden plant too

 

One of the first butterflies to be seen on the wing in spring is the Brimstone.  Flying at the first hint of warmth, they lay their eggs on Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, a spiny shrub that can be grown in the garden as a clipped hedge or allowed to grow freely.  Its citrus green flowers are followed by shiny black berries in the autumn.  In the image below the Brimstone is feeding from Ceonothus flowers, a popular garden shrub.

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A common butterfly seen from mid-summer onwards is the Peacock, collecting in numbers to feed from Buddleia flowers.  This is such a popular shrub with butterflies that it is often known as ‘the butterfly bush.’  This Peacock is visiting Dame’s Violet, a scented herbaceous plant.

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Another butterfly that visits buddleia is the Comma which has increased steadily in numbers in recent years.  The Comma can be readily identified by the shape of its jagged wings and the white comma mark that is visible on the underwing when the butterfly is at rest.  It lays its eggs on currants, hops, willows and nettles.

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Not all butterflies are brightly coloured as those above and the Meadow Brown, in comparison, is quite drab. As its name suggests, it is found in grassland often in relatively large numbers and flying up from beneath your feet as you walk.  Not restricted to the countryside, keep an eye out for it in parks, cemeteries and gardens.  The photo below shows a female Meadow Brown resting on lavender; it can be identified by the orange markings on its wing.  Compare it with the all brown male feeding on achillea.

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All butterflies fly in daylight but not all moths fly at night.  Moths aren’t always dull either: the day fliers can be very bright.  One of the most spectacular to be found in gardens in the south and west of England is the Scarlet Tiger.  Its caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including comfrey, honeysuckle and nettles.Scarlet Tiger Moth (2)   copyright

Want to know more?  The excellent website of Butterfly Conservation, the UK’s leading charity, has good identification pages for both butterflies and moths as well as a host of other information.  Better still, get out into the garden or countryside armed with camera and ID sheets.  Good butterflying!

2015: A Year in Review July-December

Oh dear!  Not a good start to the year!  January has whizzed by at such an incredible rate that this review may not be completed before midnight strikes and February arrives.
Has the month gone by more quickly because, with the exceptionally mild weather we have been having this winter and all the spring flowers in bloom weeks early, that it feels as if this review was (and should have been) written weeks earlier?

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Working on the premise ‘better late than never’ here it is now.

July: As a plantsman I’m very aware that some of the most beautiful blooms can disguise the more ominous aspects of a plants nature.  Ragwort, a common weed of grassland and waste areas has cheery, bright yellow daisy-like flowers yet hides toxins that can be fatal to horses and cattle.   Control is usually carried out by hand pulling for poisoning the plant with weedkillers makes them even ore attractive to animals as they graze the dying foliage.  However, pulling the plants put humans at risk as the sap is absorbed through the skin to damage the liver.

Always remove the pulled plants from the field

In Ragwort: A Curse or a Blessing?  I looked at the controversy surrounding this plant for it has its benefits and uses too.  Should you destroy it before it destroys you?  Click here to find out.

Ragwort and horses - not a good combination

August: A different quandary was discussed in the post A Quiche or a Quad Bike?  It isn’t often that you visit a restaurant that sells quad bikes.  Or was it a quad bike showroom that sells the most delicious home-baked quiches?  Either way, there was a dilemma: which did I want to have the most?  Click here!

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August is also the perfect month for planting daffodil bulbs – also toxic, by the way, although no-one would ever suggest banishing them from our gardens.  Remembering Wordsworth’s immortal words on the subject, this post (click here) looked at how to create drifts of colour that look as if they have been growing there since the poet’s days.

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September: back on Exmoor, my spiritual home and, to my prejudiced mind at least, England’s most beautiful National Park for another visit.  The tiny village of Exford lies at its centre.  Exford’s church pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the post (click here) looks at its Celtic origin.

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October: travelling again, this time to the south of France.  Staying in the foothills of the Pyrenees it would have been easy to write about the magnificent mountain views, the gentle Blonde Aquitaine cattle or the fine dining in every wayside café.

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However, it was on the drive home that we discovered the village of Aurignac and marvelled at its silent streets and historic houses that appeared untouched by modern living.  It was only later that I discovered it was hiding an even more ancient secret – it was the place where man’s first footsteps in Europe over 40,000 years earlier took place.

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Even if you’re not too interested in pre-history it is well worth clicking here to look at the photographs on the post  of this enchanting place.

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December:  It wouldn’t be Christmas without a bunch of mistletoe hanging somewhere in the house to catch visitors for the traditional kiss.  This month’s post (click here) looks at the tradition which is now spreading worldwide.  It also explains how to grow your very own mistletoe plants so that you never have to be unloved in the years to come.

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A rather belated Happy New Year to you all!

 

 

A Year in Review: Jan- Jun 2015

So another year has gone by and as New Year’s Eve fast approaches it is time to reflect on the one past and look forward to the one to come.

I try to visit Exmoor National Park as often as possible for I consider it to be “home from home”.  I spent a lot of my youth and early adulthood there on a remote farm not realising that I was witnessing a way of life now gone.  With the benefit of hindsight I wish I’d taken many more photographs but, in the days before digital, films were both precious and expensive.

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In January, I made a special trip to take a look at the new headquarters of the Exmoor Society in the pretty, little town of Dulverton. The enlarged space that they now have has meant that they it is now much easier to access the archives and seek information.  If you are planning a holiday on the moor, it is well worth visiting.  Click here to find out more about my day there.

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February found me walking along the edge of a precipice and seeking an elderly great-aunt, fortunately not at the same time.  I met Ba-ba (how she got this name is still a complete mystery) once as a boy when she was in her late nineties and she left a lasting impression on me.  With everyone else that knew her now dead (I’m now the ‘old’ generation) I’ve been trying to research her.  Despite the post creating a lot of interest it ended sadly without much success.  Perhaps, this post might reach someone who knows who she was.  To check out the detective work so far take a look here.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965

The Precipice Walk in Snowdonia, although not overly strenuous, is not to be attempted by the faint-hearted.  Travelling clockwise, the path clings to the edge of the drop before turning back on itself alongside a more gentle and peaceful lake.  If you’re afraid of heights go anti-clockwise for a delightful, if somewhat short, walk and turn around when you dare go no further.  Alternatively, sit back in your armchair and take a look at the photos here.

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A much longer walk, completely different in character, was described in two March posts.   Dartmoor is another national park in the West Country but much harsher than Exmoor.  Despite its bleakness now, in the past the climate was kinder, confirmed by the large number of Neolithic remains there.

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The walk starts at  a pub where according to tradition the fire has never been allowed to go out in the past two hundred years.  Our path crosses the moor to the village of Postbridge, home of the famous medieval stone clapper bridge.    The second part of the walk follows the river before continuing across the moor, taking in beehive huts dating back to 1500AD before arriving at the Grey Wethers stone circles.  The twin circles are about two thousand years old.  Reaching the stones is described here.Grey Wethers Stone Circle (2)   copyright

The history of the United States and Ireland are intertwined by mass emigration.  In April I visited New Ross in the south of Ireland and the birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather.  Fifty years after JFK’s visit his sister came to light…  Well, read here to find out exactly what she did.  The image below might give you a clue.New Ross (6)   copyright

I stayed with the Irish theme in May and wrote about the lovely village of Castlelyons where a friend spent her early childhood.  Well off the tourist trail when you red about the place you’ll wonder why.  In the meantime, we had the place to ourselves.

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June is a lovely month both for walking and also for garden lovers, with hedgerows and gardens smothered in rose blossom.  Continuing the theme of elderly ladies and ancient times the month’s post explored the history of Rosa de Rescht – fascinating for the mystery it holds.  Incidentally, even if you a hopeless gardener (and no-one is completely so) this is the simplest of roses to grow…

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GROW YOUR OWN MISTLETOE

With Christmas almost upon us one of the most traditional of purchases along with the tree, goose or turkey will be sprigs and bunches of mistletoe. Placed carefully above a doorway where passing under it is unavoidable many of us will be subjected to the torture of being kissed by those we’d rather not and disappointed by those that we would have liked to have been but ignored.Mistletoe (5)   copyright.jpg

The tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe is very much a British one although it is rapidly gaining popularity (and why not?!) around the world. Our own mistletoe, Viscum album, (European Mistletoe) grows throughout much of Europe but is decidedly fickle as to its requirements. The majority of British mistletoe grows to the west of the Cotswolds, especially amongst cider orchards found in the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. However, in other areas in the south, there are isolated populations where it can grow locally abundantly – the photos for this blog, for example, were taken in a garden in the Chiltern Hills. The further north, the rarer mistletoe is, being absent from much of northern England, Scotland, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.Mistletoe (2)   copyright.jpg

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant – or to be more accurate hemiparasitic – attaching itself to its host tree, most commonly cultivated apple or lime. Strangely, mistletoe rarely is found on the wild crab apple, perhaps due to its more congested growth. Likewise, it is rarely found in woodland where the density of trees probably reduces the amount of light and air circulation required. Although mistletoe, being green, carries out some photosynthesis this is limited and where it grows in abundance on one tree, it can weaken the host plant and reduce fruiting potential.

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European Mistletoe in flower

In the past, mistletoe has been very much associated with fertility and winter solstice rituals and its use as a decoration is still sometimes banned in churches. The Druids held the plant sacred, especially if it was found to be growing on oak (which it rarely does). Modern-day Druids now hold a festival each December at Tenbury Wells to celebrate the plant.Mistletoe (7)  copyright

 

Growing your own mistletoe is relatively easy for most of the difficulties commonly associated with germination are false. Ideally, fresh berries should be ‘sown’ in February. These can be gathered or purchased or you may prefer to store those from Christmas. If choosing the latter option, store them in a cool, light, airy place and rehydrate in a little water before use. Squeeze the seeds out of the berries and remove as much of the stickiness as possible; they will still attach easily to the bark. Choose young branches away from the trunk and fix to their underside. There is no need to nick the bark or cover the seeds although it is probably advisable to mark the branch in some way to identify it in the future. The seeds germinate quite quickly but it will be four years or more before any real growth is apparent.   Mistletoe (like holly) have separate male and female plants so it will be necessary to have several plants to ensure cross-fertilisation and berry production.

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European Mistletoe: anchor point (haustorium)

 

There are over 1500 different species of mistletoe growing throughout the world. In America the native mistletoe looks very different to our own – one of the reasons why, to British eyes, plastic mistletoe sold in the shops looks so unreal: it is modelled on the American species.

For a huge amount of fascinating information on folklore and medicinal use, advice on conservation and purchase of mistletoe seed do visit The Mistletoe Pages website where much of the above information has been gleaned.

For those interested in Druidry: The Mistletoe Foundation