Thursday, 29 May 2014

Two great dogwoods

There is nothing in cultivation quite like a flowering dogwoods; large bracts surround tiny flowers, the overall effect being like giant flowers on a large shrub/small tree. Typically these bracts are white, although stresses (such as drought) can turn them pink. Of the various species around I rate Cornus kousa very highly....

I think one of the best cultivars of Cornus kousa is 'Miss Satomi' (also known as just 'Satomi'); this cultivar has reliable pink bracts regardless of stress. It is fairly free flowering, and makes quite an impact.
Cornus kousa 'Miss Satomi'
I'm very excited about a new variety onto the scene; Cornus kousa 'National'. This form with white bracts seems to flower fairly reliably even as a young plant. It is also fairly vigorous, so I think will make an excellent garden tree in years to come.
Cornus kousa 'National'
Another excellent vigorous variety is Cornus 'Eddies White Wonder', a hybrid between C. florida and C. nutallii, neither species I would say is straightforward in cultivation in the UK. However this hybrid is vigorous, although the forms I have seen tend to be upright rather than having the spreading habit of the original form.... Either way the exceptionally sized white bracts on this one are a treat!

There is one Cornus that I don't rate very highly, despite it being quite popular. Cornus 'Norman Haddon' is a hybrid of Cornus kousa and C. capitata, and it is the latter species that can prove temperamental in all but the most favourable parts of the UK. In some places it thrives, but in many more it struggles; I would always recommend C. kousa 'Miss Satomi' instead.

Flowering dogwoods are fairly straightforward to grow in principle; lots of sunshine and a soil that doesn't get too wet or too dry and you should be OK. That said I heard some wisdom from that legend of gardening and general nice guy Roy Lancaster- different cultivars of Cornus thrive in different areas. With this in mind you might need to do some research to find which varieties suit your area... failing that just throw caution to the wind and buy either 'National' or 'Miss Satomi'!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Hot plants!

There's enough people out there telling you what was 'hot' at Chelsea this year, but here's a garden plant that needs to be widely grown.

Discovered as a hybrid swarm near the village of Jame in Mexico, Salvia x jamensis has the potential to be a very valuable and hard working plant for European gardeners. Given the chance this shrub will grow to about 3ft (1m) tall and probably the same in width, but here's the thing; in colder climates it becomes perennial, and that habit of dying back for winter gives an encouraging degree of hardiness. The colours are great, and Salvia x jamensis 'Hot Lips' is doing well in cultivation already. Here are four of my top varieties, although in due course I may need to add to this list!
Salvia x jamensis 'Pluenn'
I think Salvia 'Pluenn' has a very promising future as a border plant in British gardens. The strong candy-pink flowers are fairly large and will associate well with many different plants. It provides a strong colour but without being overbearing.
Salvia x jamensis 'Flammenn'
With a stronger colour than 'Pluenn', Salvia 'Flammenn' might suit a more exotic planting. This variety has a colour more typically associated with S. microphylla varieties, and I think that the better hardiness might make it a good alternative to Salvia microphylla varieties like 'Newby Hall'.
Salvia x jamensis 'Royal Bumble'
Salvia 'Royal Bumble' is a good rich red, although my picture doesn't quite do it justice. The darkness of the colour might make this tricky to place among other plants but don't be fooled, the flowers of 'Royal Bumble' demand to be viewed. This would look great grown amongst light grasses such as Anemanthele lessoniana (syn. Stipa arundinacea) where the light texture of the grass will merge well with these bold flowers. Larger, 'heavier' grasses might drown these Salvias later in the year.
Salvia x jamensis 'Violette De Loire'
I think that Salvia 'Violette De Loire' might be my favourite at the moment; rich purple flowers of this quality are very hard to find! This would work well as a splash of colour with low foliage plants or maybe with something airy with white flowers. 

Salvia x jamensis all like a moist but free-draining soil and plenty of sun, although a little shade will only reduce flowering. Their height makes them great at the front of the border, and they will associate well with light and airy plants of a similar height, like fine grasses or short perennials. Similarly their slightly floppy habit in pots would mean they could be grown well in containers, maybe with white trailing Lobelia or Bacopa? 

If you grow them in containers then keep an extra eye on their water in growth, and remember that they will likely loose some of their hardiness in containers so will need winter protection. In the garden they should gain hardiness as they mature, but I would strongly advise a dry mulch (bark or similar) for their first winter, and if you're in a cold area then maybe mulch them every year.

If kept in a frost-free greenhouse each winter you can typically get them into flower by the end of May. Deadheading will almost certainly increase flowering.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Trip out!

I needed a change of scene; time to take a day off work and go and visit a new garden!
Situated in an absolutely beautiful little cove on the North Devon coast, Cliffe is five acres of steep garden a stones throw from the sea. I'd heard great things about this privately owned garden, but didn't know quite what to expect. I was certainly not disappointed- this garden is a real gem.
The garden at Cliffe is impressive for many reasons; firstly the excellent collection of plants that sit so well together, and secondly for managing to feel like a garden bigger than five acres! We've probably all been to gardens with different and distinct areas, where attempts to have as many different areas in the garden as possible mean that parts of the garden jar with each other. This is not a problem at Cliffe; each distinct area blends perfectly with the next, allowing each part to contribute to the garden as a whole. 
In most places a slope as steep as that at Cliffe would be a real hindrance, but over the years this garden has learned to embrace the lie of the land and use it to a major advantage. Terracing the slope allows a wealth of plants, exotic and also quite traditional, to grow well; each terrace and area has its own personality and charm, and the skillful choice and arrangement of the plants means that the areas all still contribute to the whole effect.
Cliffe is definitely a great garden to visit if you enjoy seeing new and interesting plants. Head gardener Gill Heavens has an excellent eye for plants that are a little special and then skillfully blends new plants with already established specimens. In flower on my visit were the spectacular golden spears of Wachendorfia thyrsiflora (above), a half-hardy herbaceous plant from South Africa with sword-like leaves (and bright orange roots!). This bold clump is echoed just down the slope by a bold clump of a dark Kniphofia (below). 
A nearby clump of Moraea huttonii added to the South African theme...
Further down the garden Astelia chatamica from New Zealand looks magnificent....
... while a nearby Leucodendron glows in the sun.
If the exotic flora isn't your thing then the woodland at Cliffe is the perfect antidote. A great blend of semi-wild natives and beautiful cultivated plants make the wooded areas a distinctive feel. 
I do love Rodgersias, and this clump of Rodgersia podophylla really caught my eye...
Lurking in the undergrowth, this Woodwardia radicans reminded me just how awesome ferns are!
I have many many more pictures of this remarkable garden, but I really think this is a garden that you have to see for yourselves. Thankfully the garden is open for the National Garden Scheme... 
Special thanks to Gill Heavens for wonderful hospitality and a tour; very much appreciated! Cliffe is in the tiny North Devon village of Lee, near Illfracome, and is open by appointment until the 30th of June, then seven days a week until mid September. The garden is very inspirational, and shows what can be done in even the most unlikely site.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Myth and Murder

There's an old custom around where you're not supposed to bring Lilac flowers indoors. Why would you not want to perfume your home with the beautiful scent of Syringa...?
Syringa vulgaris 'Beauty Of Moscow'
One theory is that Syringa flowers were brought into a house to disguise the smell of death. I find this idea flawed- just how long did people leave dead bodies lying around their house, and also what happens if someone dies when Syringa isn't in flower?! Nonetheless Lilac flowers are still often associated with mourning, and there is a superstition that if you bring Lilac flowers into the house then someone will die. However this idea might originate from an infamous crime....

Now I know I've read this somewhere but I can't remember where, and certainly I can't find it in Fr. John L. Fiala's authoritative monograph of Syringa. The story goes that somewhere in Eastern Europe a man went mad and killed his wife and children, and buried them under the floor of their house. To disguise the smell of decay he filled the house with Lilac blooms, but when the Lilac finished flowering he was found out and convicted (and probably duly met his end). If this story was true then that might explain superstitions regarding Lilacs in the home.

(If anyone can point me in the right direction I'd love to see if this story was true...)

Thursday, 1 May 2014

From stock plant to your plant!

Britain has a proud heritage of growing plants, and nowhere is this more accessible to gardeners than in our nations nurseries. From the tiniest specialist nurseries up to vast nurseries producing tens of thousands of plants each year, up and down the country there are a lot of people growing a wonderful range of plants for gardeners. 

The tradition of growing in the UK is well worth celebrating and supporting, and yet nurseries have been finding times hard in recent years, with a combination of bad weather, increasing costs and cheap foreign imports making it harder to keep the tradition of growing alive.

It's time to reverse the decline and work hard to support and save UK horticulture. It's well worth saving, not least of all because it ensures that you have access to healthy plants that are suitable for our nation's climate. By raising and growing plants in the UK we can also help protect our gardens from pests and diseases that are transported from overseas, as well as helping the environment by reducing the carbon footprint of each plant in our garden. But what is actually involved in growing and selling plants here in the UK? Well let me take you on a brief tour...
Stock plants at Seiont Nursery...
... and at Hardy's Plants
Much as with propagating at home, the key to success when raising new plants is to start with the best material. Skilled growers and propagators nurse stock or 'mother' plants to yield the highest number of healthy cuttings, which are then struck in carefully monitored and regulated conditions. Woody plants that cannot be raised from cuttings are often grafted onto a rootstock (many varieties of trees are done this way, and you can often see the graft 'union' at the bottom of the trunk)- grafting, essentially 'sticking' part of the plant you want to grow onto a compatible rootstock, sounds easy it's actually quite fiddly, and I'll admit my own efforts have failed spectacularly!
Plants raised from cuttings at Hardy's Plants
Preparing plants for tissue culture at Seiont
Spireas grown from cuttings at Walberton Nursery
Some herbaceous plants simply cannot be raised in sufficient numbers to satisfy demand, so must be raised by tissue culture in sterile conditions. Tissue culture is an incredible process; essentially you are making whole new plants from a cluster of cells from the original plant! Even though I've been growing plants that have been raised from tissue culture for years it still feels like a miracle! Although even the very idea of growing plants from clusters of cells sounds like something from science fiction it is an incredibly efficient way to raise large numbers of plants that are exactly the same variety in a sensible time frame and without incurring massive costs. However it is not economically viable to raise small numbers of plants this way, so many plants are still raised the traditional (and slow) way.
Heuchera plugs being weaned and hardened off at Seiont
Regardless of how plants are propagated they are very vulnerable in their first few weeks/months and skilled nursery staff must be vigilant to protect young plants from pests and diseases, fluctuations in watering, as well as cold or hot conditions. If you're propagating plants at home on a windowsill or in a greenhouse you have to 'harden them off', that is to say gently acclimatise them to outdoor conditions, and the same is true on commercial nurseries... albeit on a much larger scale!

For some nurseries this is the end of the road; for a young plant nursery their work is done when the plants are ready to send out, either as plugs or 9cm pots (or sometimes bigger if the plant warrants it) or bare rooted saplings for forestry. For these nurseries the scale of production is vast, and batches of plants could easily be 10,000 or more of each thing! Once plants are safe to send they are then send out to growing-on nurseries, the next stage in the plant's journey. Small nurseries and some larger nurseries only grow the plants that they propagate themselves, so the young plants are only transported around the same site- great for reducing the carbon footprint of each plant providing the nursery has the necessary stock plants and facilities to propagate the plants they want to stock.
Plants waiting to be sold at Hardy's Nursery
A growing-on nursery will receive the young plants and pot them up to be grown on for sale, either direct to the public or to garden centres. Plants are fed/watered, trained, pruned and generally cared for to get them to a size and quality that customers will like. Some crops have a very fast turnaround and might be ready for sale in a matter of a few weeks, while others might take a year or more to reach saleable size and standard. Across the UK armies of skilled nursery staff tend a wide range of crops to get them ready for your garden. Many nurseries grow only hardy plants, which means that their entire stock is very much suited to our climate, but others specialise in more exotic plants which may need completely different care regimes from hardy plants.
Lovely plants ready for sale at Hardy's Nursery
Once the plants are properly rooted and are ready they are put out for sale. On smaller traditional nurseries this might only be a very short distance from where they have been propagated and grown, but for wholesalers the plants must be sold on to garden centres. This is where locally sourced plants become important; if you live in the very north of Scotland your climate will be very different from the south coast of England, so plants sent straight up the length of the UK won't necessarily be safe to put straight into your garden, whereas plants grown by a nursery 10 miles away would be much better acclimatised to your conditions. Likewise plants raised under glass in Holland and imported to the UK need time to acclimatise to being outside.

There are many reasons why we should all support British nurseries, and here are a few:
Often the range of plants is better/more diverse in nurseries than garden centres, which is especially important if you want to grow something a little bit different and special in your garden.
By going to the growers you can usually be assured of more in-depth advice.
You are supporting your local and national economy.
You are less likely to introduce exotic pests and diseases into your own garden (I'll add at this point that I once found locusts on imported bedding plants in a garden centre- the staff were incredibly embarrassed!).
You are supporting a rich heritage of plant production here in the UK. If you want to enjoy UK grown plants in the future then nurseries must remain economically viable.
Beautiful Spireas leaving Walberton Nursery
Garden centres aren't bad, and in fact have their own part to play in British horticulture (increasingly buy their plants from British wholesalers), but to keep Britain's gardens as diverse as their owners we simply must support our nursery industry.

Images have kindly been donated by Swine's Meadow Farm Nursery (, Hardy's Plants ( and Seiont (a trade nursery specialising in exciting new introductions, many of which are propagated by tissue culture). Likewise thanks also to Walberton Nursery (also a trade nursery) for the pictures of their Spirea production. Many thanks to all of you for your help with this blog post!