“If Only… If Only…”

What is it in human nature that always makes us long for the exact opposite of what we are getting at that moment?  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m constantly wishing for something different for I’m pretty easy-going – well I think so, anyway 😊   But over the last few days I’ve heard myself saying “if only…” a lot more often than is usual. 

Until Brexit changed our outlook somewhat, as a nation we were brought up to believe that talking politics (or religion) was taboo, it wasn’t something to discuss even amongst close friends or family. It was always said that the reason for not doing so was to avoid offending anyone.  I think that may just have been an assumption and that the real reason for not talking about these things is because we Brits are always taking about the weather.  There’s no time left to discuss anything else. One of the certainties in an uncertain world is that in the UK the weather will never be the same two days running.  Now even that certainty has been take away from us for we have been suffering from high temperatures and prolonged drought.

Parched earth
Wildfire – a little too close to home for comfort. (We’re ok!)

I have extended family scattered all over the world and as a child lived in a house where foreign accents and languages were frequently heard for not all of our visitors spoke English.  One of the phrases that was a constant, for we lived in the countryside, was how green our landscape was.  Those that came from more tropical climes couldn’t believe how cool our summers were either.  This year they would feel more at home for our fields and woods are tinder dry and our grass parched and brown.  It is for this reason that I have been saying “if only…”   As a relief from the arid conditions, I have decided to write about cooler, wetter times not because I really want it to snow in August but so that we had some images to look at to remind us that, unlike many other places, our drought and oppressive heat is unlikely to last very long in comparison.  If it helps to make me feel slightly less grumpy about our present state, then so much the better.

View from our garden in a normal year – nice and green!

“If only it was colder” – to wake up at the break of day to cloudless skies and sunshine is, to put it frankly, un-British.  There’s nothing worse than to lie in bed overheating only to find no relief when you get up.  Give me a crisp, frosty morning any day, when the sky is blue, the air cold and our little river shimmering, not in a heat-haze but a cold-haze.  Of course, in reality, our winters aren’t like that very often.  Far too often the days are grey and gloomy but I’m highly unlikely to say “if only…” about one of those.

A rare day when it’s bitterly cold but sunny – just how I like it!

“If only it would snow” – I love the white stuff even though it does make life more difficult.  Whether the drifts are across the road or not, we have to be out in it to attend to our horses for they need feeding and watering whatever the weather.  Snow in southern England is a very hit or miss affair and we have had none for the last few years.  Only once in the past twenty years of living in the secret valley have I had snow deep enough to ski on and it is a great source of pride and pleasure that I managed it even once.  There is nothing like clipping on a pair of skis and swishing through a landscape that has been silenced by snow.  The photos below were taken some years ago – just looking at them makes me feel pleasantly cool.

Wintry view from our house
The road leading out of the valley

“If only it would rain” – these words are almost never spoken in this island nation for rain is constantly being blown inland on a south-westerly from off the Atlantic Ocean.  However, at the moment, it is rain we need more than anything.  Our garden plants are shrivelling, the winter corn cannot be sown for the ground is rock hard.  And as inferred to earlier, we miss our green grass, our wildflowers and the verdancy of our woodlands.  The last couple of days the forecasters have been telling us that rain is on its way and that it will be torrential when it arrives.  So far, we have had three light showers lasting just a couple of minutes.  What we need is two weeks or more of gentle, refreshing rain.  Whether we get it we shall have to wait and see.  Our valley looks rather splendid when it is flood but I don’t really think we should wish for that. 

Our little house sits high above the river so flooding isn’t a problem
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that the little river can flood so much

There is one more “if only…” that I know I shall be saying before long and that is “if only it would go back to that lovely summer weather we were having.”  Some people are just never satisfied!

A glorious sunrise over the valley

In Need of Winter Cheer – and how to get it

With the long, dark nights now upon us (and the gloomy daily news) we could all do with a little cheer to take us forward.  It isn’t too late to take a small step towards obtaining it for there is nothing quite like flowers in the house to lift the mood.  Now is a good time to plant bulbs for indoor flowering.  The choice is surprisingly large and some can have quite exacting growth requirements but the simplest of these – that anyone can succeed with even if they don’t have green fingers – is the sweetly scented, white-flowering Narcissus Paperwhite.

The delicate looking bloom of the Paperwhite Narcissus

Unlike the majority of Narcissus (Daffodils) they do not require a period of complete darkness to encourage them into growth.  In fact, they do not even need to be planted for they will happily flower just anchored in a bowl or pot of gravel that is kept moist.  However, I think they are better planted in potting compost and look far more aesthetically pleasing.  I never bother with special bulb fibre that is sold for the purpose mostly because I tend to have half-open bags of compost kicking around the place that need to be used up.  If you plant the Paperwhites now and bring them straightaway into the house they can be in flower in six to eight weeks.  Those in the photos below were placed in our conservatory and, with the unanticipated warmth from a week of late autumn sunshine which accelerated their growth, have come into flower in just three weeks from planting.  So much for having them in bloom over Christmas!

Note the use of twigs to provide natural looking support

The secret to the planting is to cram as many bulbs as you can into the pot, either in a single or double layer.  If choosing the latter don’t plant directly over one another but stagger them a little so they all have freedom to grow without struggling to push past.  The bulbs in the glazed earthenware pot here were planted in a single layer all touching one another – that way I was able to squeeze in twenty-eight bulbs into a container measuring just twelve inches in diameter. 

Put as many bulbs in the pot as you can squeeze in

Paperwhites have a tendency to flop just when they look their best and the quickest way to prevent this is to push twigs into the compost.  If you do this at the time of planting or very soon after the plants grow strongly through them and look far more natural than when you try to rectify it once they have collapsed.  It is also far less fiddly than using canes and string and looks more natural too.

I have always found hyacinths far more difficult to grow well although I know plenty of people who never seem to have any trouble whatsoever.  They need to be kept in darkness until the flower bud just shows.  I have found them to be rather erratic with their growth and, in the days when I had to provide huge displays for the big country houses I worked for, I grew them in individual, small pots.  By growing more than I really required I could select those of matching height, remove them from their pots and then replant them into the display pots.  They never failed to impress and I never let on how I managed to get such a uniform display!  Far easier are the little grape hyacinths, Muscari, growing here in a glass bowl – an idea I copied after I was given them one year as a gift.

Grape Hyacinths are often sold under the name Muscari

Perhaps one of the loveliest bulbs I have planted in recent years is the miniature iris, Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’ (I have spelt that right!).  Once, again, very easy to grow – just keep them in the dark until they start to grow and then bring them indoors.  After they have finished flowering they can be planted in the garden where they will flower each spring for many more years.

Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’
The Iris’ beautiful markings can be more readily admired when they are indoors

Amaryllis or Hippeastrum are spectacular giants that aren’t to everyone’s taste.  I’m not too keen on them as an individual plant grown on a kitchen window sill although they will bloom there quite happily.  I prefer to use them as cut flowers and for this I tend to grow them in a greenhouse, although a light windowsill would work just as well if you have the space.  They are very straightforward, do not need to be kept in the dark and are often sold complete with pot and compost in gift boxes.  When used as I suggest, several stems placed together in a tall vase look superb.

home-grown Amaryllis used as a cut flower

I have found tulips to be less successful as indoor bulbs although the shorter types should work; I’m just not very keen on those so have never bothered to try.  However, if you have an unheated greenhouse that lies idle through the winter plant the exotic double types there.  Protected from the worst of the cold and rain they flower weeks earlier than normal and can be harvested as exceptionally beautiful cut flowers.

I find tulips for indoors are best grown as flowers for cutting

The secret to indoor bulb growing, as with all forms of gardening, is to experiment and find what works best for you.  Over the years, I have tried all sorts, some surprisingly successful and some, if not quite disasters, they certainly weren’t worth bothering with a second time.  With success, you will have an endless supply of colour and scent for your home and, of course, they make great Christmas and birthday gifts.  This last sentence also gives me the excuse to remind you all that my book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?  is still available from Amazon or through booksellers and also makes a great gift!  In it you will find all sorts of hints and shortcuts that I used during my years as a Head Gardener when it was essential that the displays both in the house and the garden were as good as they could be.  Happy bulb planting!

A perfect gift!

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