What A Difference A Year Makes

The British are always going on about the weather and I’m no exception.  My very first words upon waking are “What is the weather doing?” and my final words before sleeping are “What will the weather be doing?”.  I make no apologies for this: it’s part of our make-up as a nation.  It’s because, I was once told, that whereas other countries have seasons, Britain just has weather.  It’s not quite that simple, we do have seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – just like any other temperate country, it’s just that in the UK they get a bit muddled up.

I write this, snug in front of the woodburner – not that much heat is getting past She-dog who thinks this has been lit solely for her pleasure and comfort – listening to a gale rattling the window panes and whistling around the eaves.  The rain is lashing down and there is absolutely no need for me to ask what the weather is doing this evening.  However, I have been told that I have said “Listen to the weather” several times. I could have said how remarkable it is that only yesterday I had my lunch sitting in the garden.  Yes, really.

I should admit that I am a hardy sole as I work outdoors all year and so am less affected by cold than most and I also should admit that I was wearing a coat and gloves and sitting in a sheltered, sunny spot. Regardless of those finer details, yesterday I commented how last year to the day we were up to our necks in snow in the worst wintry weather the Secret Valley had had for years.  And, even more remarkably, the snow came when you would expect it  –  in midwinter but (and there’s always a ‘but’ where British weather is concerned) in the Cotswolds we rarely get snow before January …..   But it was still rather remarkable to be sitting there, surely and remark worthy?

What is even more remarkable is that all of this week I have been planting out herbaceous plants and laying turf; late even by our odd climate standards.  We have had frosts: there were three quite hard ones in October, then none until the last week of November and then a couple more last week and none since.  In between, we had two weeks of warmish air and thick fog which was enough to make even me depressed. 

The spirits, even on those damp, grey days, were uplifted by the huge array of flowers that have reappeared.  There are always a few late roses hanging on determinedly until Christmas Day, looking bedraggled and ragged but not this time.  Some of them have given up but others have almost as many blooms as midsummer.  There are pots of herbaceous Salvia nemerosa ‘Mainacht’ that have regrown after their end-of-season haircut and are in full bloom once again.  Primroses and cowslips are showing colour.  Today I counted over twenty different summer flowering plants still going strong.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I really mean showing the odd flower or two.  All the plants have become muddled so we have Winter Jasmine as you would expect but not alongside spring flowering Forsythia.  And we have evergreen, flowering shrubs such as Viburnum and Sarcococca as we should have at this time of year – but not alongside the newly unfurling purple leaves of Cotinus cogyggria.  Where, or more to the point, when will it all end?  Possibly quite soon.

It isn’t just the garden that is confused.  On the farm the cattle are still out grazing the fields.  They should be inside by now but with plenty of grass still available in the fields they can be out for a little longer. 

While I am here writing about a bit of wind and rain, the north of England and Scotland, in particular, are bearing the brunt of 100mph gales and heavy snow.  Perhaps we are quite fortunate, after all.  The rain here is only supposed to last a few hours and tomorrow is forecast unbroken sunshine once more.  Which reminds me, I  really must start talking about the lack of rain we have had in recent months.  The little winding river is running lower than it ever has and can be easily walked across in places in just walking boots where the water flows over gravel .  It should look, at this time of year, like the photograph I use on the header to this blog.  Instead it looks like midsummer again with the water, where it flows deeper, still choked with watercress.  Oh well!  I suppose I should be grateful that I am still able to go out and pick it in December – I can make a store of some delicious hot soup to drink when the weather realises it is winter.

All the photographs, except for She-dog in the snow, were taken over the past week or two.  When the frost has been hard the Secret Valley has looked at its best.

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Gardening With Weeds

Much has been written about creating wild flower meadows in recent years. Many gardening magazines infer that somehow you must be lacking in something if you don’t rush out there and then and rip up your precious lawn to create the daisy and orchid studded turf depicted in medieval tapestries. There is much to be said for doing this (and I’ve done a few in my time too). However, the reason why most of us don’t do it is purely down to lack of space and time, and also most of us still like to see a reasonably weed free patch of green grass at the centre of our gardens. Now don’t get me wrong, anything that reduces the amount of chemicals used and encourages wildlife has got to be a good thing and our gardens, collectively, could – and should – make one vast nature reserve.

But why restrict yourself to wild flowers in grass? Very few articles suggest using them in herbaceous borders, or amongst shrubs, but I have been planting them like this for some years now and the results can be terrific. This flower border in the photo was taken 14 months after planting and looks very much like a traditional, English flower border. But there are some differences and those are the wild flowers intermingling with the more usual garden plants.



Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, grows wild in boggy places and by stream edges so seems an unlikely candidate for the border. I have found it to be a great choice which copes well with ordinary soil conditions. In the hot, dry summer we have had this year they have only grown to about half their normal height of 3-4ft but their cerise colour and longevity have still made them a worthy addition. In the photograph above they are the bright pink ‘blob’ in the centre, growing separately to the surrounding plants.

Here they are being grown as a companion to a bright pink ground cover rose, a combination that I’m not so keen on (even though I did plant them myself). They are a bit too strident and close in colour for my taste but others have stopped and admired them so there they remain.

I have also experimented growing them in containers where, of course, you can easily give them the moister conditions they would naturally prefer. Here, their colour makes them quite an exotic addition to the matching colour petunias, the purple leafed coleus and tropical looking (but hardy) palm.

Another reason for growing wild flowers is that, of course, they are great attractants of the local insects. A clump of the herbaceous St John’s Wort, this one is Perfoliate St John’s Wort, Hypericum perfoliatum, always are covered, when in flower, with bees and other beneficial, pollinating insects. The flowers are miniature versions of the shrubby Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ and all the better for being small. In the wild, they grow (as many wild flowers do) quite happily amongst grass and other plants. In the garden, I find they combine well with Wormwood, the tall, shrubby Artemisia.

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The pale blue flowers of the Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis, continue for months on end and combine well with most other colours. Growing them in the garden gives you the opportunity to notice them in detail. In the wild, it is less likely that you would see how the outer petals of the flower uncurl before the inner ones. Grow them with exotic looking Icelandic poppies or, like here, with tall, purple, Salvia.





Wild flowers often are generous with their flowering, not only in the quantity of blooms and their exuberance. Sometimes, they offer a ‘sport’. The most common variant from the norm is white and this pure white version of scabious was a delightful bonus. I like the way the buds start off a creamy colour.



Recently, I have tried growing Lady’d Bedstraw, Galium verum. It is working quite well and the rather acid yellow looks good with lavender. In fact, this flower is all the better for propping itself up against its neighbours as it is a bit inclined (in an unlady-like way) to sprawl, otherwise.



One word of caution about introducing wild flowers into the garden: sometimes, they like garden conditions just too much. If in doubt, plant a small number of plants in an area where you can control them should they take off. I didn’t do this with one of my childhood favourites, Toadflax. It took me three years of painful weeding to extract the final pieces from more delicate plants. I have gone back to admiring it where it belongs – along roadside verges and on waste ground.



And one final plea: please grow and enjoy our native, wild flowers but do source them from a reputable nursery. Apart from being illegal to dig or uproot a plant in the wild, as gardeners we are supposed to conserve plants ……

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Scabious: Wild and Tame

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very fond of garden plants that have not been messed around with too much. By that, I mean I generally prefer the simpler flowers. So-called ‘improvement’ is so often just another word for vulgar, blousy and big – although there are occasions when I have a need for both the blousy and vulgar!
Scabious are a delight regardless, whether they are growing in the hedgerow or the border.
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The secret valley is awash with scabious, as well as other wild flowers, at the moment. The dry weather seems to suit them for they are looking just perfect. They seem to be everywhere – they especially like roadside verges but also grow in odd pockets of wasteland on very poor soil. But it is not just the secret valley where they are found, for the whole of the Cotswolds seems to be a haze of powder blue. In fact, they grow pretty well throughout the British Isles although they are much more scarce in Scotland.
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I have found photography and blogging has improved my powers of observation for it is only recently that I noticed that the scabious has quite hairy stems. These feel quite soft to the touch, so it was with some surprise that I learnt that they are closely related to teasels, whose hairs have been modified into sharp, protective spines.
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However, it was only when looking at these pictures that I noticed how the flowers open from the outer edge and then work there way inwards. Obviously, my powers of observation have still some way to go!
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As garden plants, in my opinion, they are superb. Always tidy, never need staking and, with regular dead heading, flower continuously from mid June onwards. In the photos below, scabious is being grown in a cottage garden border (this is Scabiosa caucasica but still pretty!) amongst pale pink Icelandic poppies. The scabious is perennial and will grow again every year, the poppies are annuals. I just threw some poppy seed down amongst them and, as the poppies were mixed colours, removed any that turned out not to be pink. Simple!
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As an ingredient for containers they are unrivalled, too. Here, in huge one metre square pots, they form an underplanting with Salvia nemerosa and small flowered petunias beneath the (very) light shade of Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’. This scabious is an improved form of our wild flower – it is dwarfer than the type.
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The Five Spot Burnet moth flies in daylight and is everywhere at the moment. They especially seem to like feeding on the scabious, choosing these above the profusion of other wild flowers. They are very pretty and when the light catches them at the right angle, the black ground of their wings become irradescent, similar to the ‘black’ feathers of the magpie and farmyard cockeral.
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Going…..
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Going…….
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Gone!
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Like many plants, occasionally a ‘sport’ arises. Driving home today, I noticed just two white flowered scabious growing by the side of a country lane. Beautiful!


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Plant Combinations in the Summer Border

When I designed the summer border (featured in the last post) I made a conscious effort to experiment with plant combinations. Mostly, the results were pleasing – to my eyes , anyway – and sometimes surprising. The brief from my client was to keep the planting relatively low and to give the border a cottage feel rather than, say, the new ‘prairie’ style. They were not plantsmen or even keen to garden themselves: the only plant they really knew they wanted, and in quantity, were lavenders. This gave me my starting point.

The lavender hedge not only gave me plenty of lavenders, it also softened the curved and hard edge of the stone path that extended the whole length of the border. An unforeseen bonus was with the reflected heat from the stone – it seemed to heighten their scent, filling the air along with myriads of bees and butterflies that were attracted to it. Another good bee plant was Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, a native plant normally found in damp places and by pond edges. This is a garden cultivar ‘Robert’, which is shorter than the type and was quite at home in ordinary garden soil. The ground cover rose ‘Magic Carpet’ was a close match in colour, the result quite strident but tempered by the lighter centre of the rose flower. I wouldn’t describe this as me at my most subtle!

A much quieter planting and taking cottage style to it’s extreme was this combination of Icelandic poppies and scabious. I didn’t notice the bumblebee at the time but it really ‘makes’ the photo! The Magic Carpet rose looks much easier on the eye planted against lavender and red sage.
Climbing roses are a passion – no garden should be without at least one. This is a David Austin variety called Snow Goose and is one of my signature plants: it goes into many of the gardens I work with. It is easy, disease free, relatively low growing (about 9ft) so ideal for all sorts of odd corners. It sadly lacks scent which normally would rule it out for me. Certain plants such as roses, sweet peas and pinks, for example, have to have scent, for surely that is their ‘raison d’etre’. Here Snow Goose is growing through Photinia davidiana ‘Palette’ which is being trained as a wall shrub. I love the way the tiny white flowers of the Photinia mimic the rose and the white splashes on the leaves are emphasised by the flower colour.

Rosa glauca is another rose that I use regularly. It is grown mostly for its wonderful foliage although the flowers are pretty, if somewhat fleeting. This shrub rose will grow to 6ft or more but to get the best foliage and stem colour it is best to prune it hard. Cut back severely it sends out these long, dusky wands which are perfect for cutting for use in the house. Here it is teamed with the Oriental poppy ‘Patty’s Plum’. The poppy was planted inside a trio of the roses which hides the poppy’s leaves as these tend to become rather shabby. The thorns of the rose also hook the floppy stems of the poppy flowers which means that there is no need for staking and tying in: why bother with a chore like that when nature can do it for you?

A combination of blues against a blue sky using Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella), Salvia nemerosa ‘Rugen’ and two Iris, ‘Jane Phillips’, pale blue with a pleasant scent and ‘Deep Blue’ with its dark, almost black flowers. The tall, ferny foliage in the background is the giant scabious, Cephalaria giganteum. Its pale yellow flowers give a complete colour variation to this part of the border as the iris fade and the Cephalaria opens to glow like moonshine behind the nigella and salvia.

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