The Chelsea Chop

Despite its name, the Chelsea Chop isn’t the latest trend in hair styling although trimming the unruly and the straggly certainly is involved. It is a very simple and straightforward method of cutting back herbaceous* plants which, for some reason, terrifies even the most confident of gardeners.

Sedums (foreground) growing at Lytes Cary Manor

The only skills required are courage and the knowledge of exactly when to carry out the chop. The latter is simple to calculate and is hinted at by the title of the deed – the week of the Chelsea Flower Show or thereabouts. This year, there have been two hiccups in using this rule: firstly, the show has been moved to autumn because of Covid restrictions and secondly, because spring has been so slow in coming that plants are behind with their growth. As a general rule of thumb, the time for cutting is around the third week of May.

The flat flowerheads of sedum are made up of hundreds of tiny star-like florets

Beloved by bees and butterflies, Sedum – also known as Ice Plants on account of their fleshy, cool-to-the-touch leaves – are the ideal candidate for the chop and one of the most satisfying to do. Inevitably, when left to their own devices, the large, flat flowerheads are too weighty for their stems and they topple over to sprawl across the ground and spoiling an otherwise impressive display.

Sedum, the Ice Plant, frequently collapses & looks ugly just as it flowers

To make the chop all that has to be done is to cut through every growing stem, thereby reducing the plant’s overall height by half to one-third. Clear away the prunings (which can be added to the compost heap) so as not to attract slugs. There, I told you it was simple!

Sedum given the chop. Don’t forget to pick up all the prunings!

Although the method sounds and looks drastic the plants quickly recover and make new growth. The end result will be a plant that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t require staking. Admittedly, the flowerheads will be smaller than before but they produce so many more than they would have done left unpruned that the effect is in no way diminished.

Numerous flowerheads appearing on the now tight growth of Sedum two months after the Chelsea Chop

This simple pruning technique can be used on a number of other plants too in exactly the same way. The taller achillea, phlox, campanula, asters (michaelmas daisies) and rudbeckias are all good candidates. I have heard of its use on echinacea (cone flower), penstemon and helenium but, in my experience, these are trouble-free plants anyway, so why bother? The secret to good, stress-free gardening practice is to find the balance of what suits you and what suits the plant. The Chelsea Chop on sedum in May prevents an awful lot of stress later in the year!

top left – clockwise: achillea, campanula, aster, rudbeckia. They can all be given the Chelsea Chop

*herbaceous – a non-woody plant that dies back and becomes dormant in winter to regrow each spring

Coppicing Hazel – the how, the why, the where

Lamb’s Tails (as country children call them), the pale-yellow catkins of the hazel, are a familiar sight at this time of year.  A traditional component of our hedgerows, they are perhaps seen in more glory when growing unchecked along roadside verges where they can achieve a much greater height.  There, up to 15 metres tall in favoured conditions, the soft golden shimmer of hundreds of catkins really is one of the earliest harbingers of spring.

Lamb’s tails: their pollen is released by the wind

Catkins begin to form early in the winter, small, stubby and dull in colour where they wait until, quite suddenly, they are as we see them now.  The transition always goes unnoticed.  Even less noticed are the female flowers – for catkins are male.  Whereas the majority of plants are self-fertile, Hazel, Corylus avellana, is one of a number that carry both male and female flowers.  Wind-pollinated, the breeze carries the pollen from the male to the female to fertilise.  However, the pollen has to reach a different plant for it to be successful.  The tiny, female flowers can be discovered by careful searching along the branches a few days after the catkins have fully formed.

The short, stubby embryo catkins form in early winter
The minute, female flowers take a bit of finding…

For gardeners, hazel is one of the most traditional and useful of plants and it is worth growing one or two in an odd corner if you have the room.  There they will quickly create a multi-stemmed shrub.  Visually, as a garden plant, when left to its own devices, it is of limited value (wildlife love it, of course).  However, by coppicing the plant there will be a regular supply of poles for runner beans to climb and the twiggy top-growth is the perfect support for garden peas, mange-tout and the headily-scented sweet peas.  They are also useful for supporting taller herbaceous plants, saving them from collapse and look so much more attractive than canes and string or wire netting.  It’s far quicker to do, too!

A good crop of runner bean poles

So, what is coppicing and how do you do it?  Well, for a start, it’s a dead easy and very uncomplicated form of pruning!  All that has to be done is to cut with secateurs or garden loppers the stems to a few inches above ground level during the winter.  If you do this over three years by removing only a third of the stems each year you will have stems of varying heights and diameters without losing any screening effect.  Although coppicing may seem a drastic form of pruning they quickly regrow and it also prolongs the life of the plant considerably. 

Coppiced hazel can make a good summer screen in the garden

Many years ago, coppicing of hazel (and, sometimes, ash and field maple too) was standard practice in many of our woodlands.  These days it is still carried out as a conservation tool to encourage the breeding of our now endangered dormouse and other wildlife.  Hazel is the food plant of many moths and the autumn supply of nuts are great favourites with jays, squirrels and wood mice – and, of course, humans. In the photo below of long-neglected woodland, the hazel is naturally regenerating as coppice as the old and heavy branches collapse onto the forest floor.

Neglected storm-damaged hazel naturally regenerating as coppice

Hazel can be useful, along with willow, to create living structures such as pergolas, arches, fencing and tunnels.  They all involve regular pruning in much the same way as coppicing although in most instances the number of upright growths is reduced to one or two.  The prunings make excellent kindling for wood burners and, if you’re feeling really creative, rustic furniture.  Why not have a go?  From just one native species we can have fun projects that are ideal for people of all ages.  It can be used as an educational tool too: nature study and conservation, rural history and artistry make it the perfect resource for lockdown and home learning.

This living hazel tunnel makes a fine garden feature and is also good for wildlife
An imaginative and practical way of using hazel branches

A Host of Golden Daffodils

If you want to see, as Wordsworth did, a ‘host of golden daffodils…beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze,’ in your own garden now is the time to plant them. What’s more, you don’t need a lake or rolling acres to have a spectacular show. The secret is to plant them in quantity and with a little thought on position.

Daffodils (2)    copyright

Daffodils (Narcissus) are incredibly easy to grow for every full sized bulb that you buy already has next spring’s flower formed within it. All you have to do is pop them in the ground as soon as possible after purchase and nature does the rest.Daffodils (2)   copyright

A general rule is to plant any bulb twice the depth of its height: so if your bulb is two inches high, your planting hole needs to be four inches deep. When they are tucked safely below ground at that level the bulbs aren’t so likely to get damaged when weeding. To get the ‘host’ look don’t plant singly or in tiny groups of twos and threes. Think big, think twenty-five, fifty or even a hundred or more. This may sound an expensive option but daffodils are readily available in bulk mail order and many garden centres offer a ‘cram as many as you can into a bag’ deal. It is worth remembering too that the bulbs will continue to increase in quantity and flower for many years making them incredibly good value for money.

Naturalised Daffodils   copyright

Because daffodils flower early in the year, before most other plants in the border have got going, it is not necessary to plant them at the front. If they are planted further back, later their dying leaves will become hidden by spring growth. You will find that when planted too far forward, they are both unsightly and a nuisance.

Narcissus 'Salome'

Narcissus ‘Salome’

One of the best ways of growing daffodils is to grow them in grass or under trees – just as Wordsworth saw them. The simplest way to do this is to simply throw the bulbs and plant them where they fall. Some will land very close together and some further apart which makes them look as if they have been growing there forever. Make the throw gentle, a cross between underarm cricket and bowls – you’re not trying to win the Ashes. In grass, the bulbs will be easier to spot if you mow the grass as short as possible beforehand.

Naturalised Daffodils (3)   copyright

Which varieties to select is only difficult because there is almost too much choice. For naturalising I tend to select three standard varieties that flower at slightly differing times, thereby extending the flowering period. In the borders I just choose those varieties that I fancy.

Narcissus 'Chanterelle'

Narcissus ‘Chanterelle’

Although daffodils are best planted during August and September, I usually find I’m too busy with other garden tasks then. I have found they can be planted right up to December without a problem providing wintry weather hasn’t closed in. If the thought of planting large quantities sounds rather daunting remember you can always plant year after year until you’ve achieved the aimed for look.

Nine thousand daffodils!

Nine thousand daffodils!

John Shortland is the author of Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? a jargon-free and easy to read gardening manual, available from Amazon and good bookshops.  To take a peep inside click on the image below.

BOOK COVER FROM AMAZON

Rosa de Rescht, Lost in History

Everything about this little grown rose is a conundrum. Even its name is spelt in different ways as it is sometimes listed as De Resht and categorised as a Portland rose and sometimes as a Damask. Wherever it is found in a catalogue one factor that is consistently agreed upon is its scent which is exquisite.Rosa 'de Resht'   copyright

Its history is equally confused with stories of how it was found growing in Persia at the end of the Second World War or how it was brought to France in the early 1800s with numerous other theories of its origin in almost every decade in between.

The rose flowers are of medium size and fully double, magenta in colour with a slight crimson hue. They are repeat flowering although this tends to be in flushes so there are short periods when the plant is quiet. Being double, they are of less value to bees and other insects.

Rosa 'De Resht' (3)   copyright

Rosa de Rescht is an upright rose about 3ft (1m) in height which makes it ideal for use as a small hedge. It suckers sporadically, these often being thrown up some distance from the parent plant. These are never a nuisance and as they come true to type can be severed and grown elsewhere or left to bloom where they wish. The foliage is bluish-green and, in my garden at least, is healthy and free from pests.Rosa 'De Resht' (2)   copyright

As with all roses, care when planting is rewarded although they do cope quite well on poorer, dry soils too. They revel in sunshine but I also have them growing in light shade without any noticeable problems with flowering or growth. Like all repeat flowering roses, removing the fading blooms (dead-heading) encourages new ones to form.

I’m not a great lover of gardens where roses are grown formally on their own – there can be few uglier sights than a rose bed in winter! Rosa de Rescht grows admirably amongst herbaceous plants and this is how I grow them.

Rosa De Resht   copyright

It is unlikely that you will find Rosa de Rescht in a garden centre but it is readily available from specialist nurseries. Peater Beales and David Austin both list it as do some smaller mail order nurseries. A single plant of this variety won’t add much value to a border, buy a minimum of three even for planting in small spaces. In time, you are likely to end up with more but why worry? This little rose is so charming and its scent so sweet you will be only too delighted.

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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