Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Getting trendy.

I think we're heading for a new revolution in how we garden. We've gone from the 'exotics and bamboos' phase of around the year 2000, through 'grow your own fruit and veg' (which is surprisingly hard work if you're not a TV gardener) and we're now in a phase of growing cut flowers, as well as growing plants for nature and generally gardening along more natural lines.
Phormium tenax 'Tricolor' used to be a 'hot' plant!
Every year the horticultural media speculates what's going to be 'big' at Chelsea, and pretty well every year they've been wrong. How can they expect to be right when horticulture spans from the commonplace to the rare, the small to the big, the window-box to the country estate? Guessing the trends in gardening is a lot more complicated than looking at what designers have sourced for their gardens at Chelsea, or just what's looking good in May. Picking up trends in gardening is also more than flicking through magazines to see what's nice enough to be on their glossy pages; a magazine photographer will take pictures of what looks nice, not what's worthy.

We know some long-term trends all too well; conifers have sadly fallen from grace despite continuing to be excellent garden plants (it's worth noting that conifers are still popular across Northern Europe where their good looks and resilience to cold are still appreciated). Similarly heathers are frowned upon as being 'dated', despite being excellent garden plants. When was the last time you saw lots of bamboos at your local garden centre, or hundreds of Photinia 'Red Robin', or when was the last time a TV gardener told you how to plant the fairly hardy Musa basjoo? If you want to gauge what trends have been and gone just go to your nearest garden centre or nursery and ask them what they used to sell lots of but don't any more; you'll get this list and probably a few more things.
Pinus parviflora 'Bonnie Bergman' is still a fantastic plant!
Where are Potentilla fruticosa cultivars with their cheerful colourful flowers over a long season? Where are all the grasses that were thought to be the great garden plants of the future? Where are the Astilbes and all the other traditional 'bread and butter' garden plants? They're still out there, you won't have to look far to find one, but they're not fashionable any more.

Media and plant shows used to have a great hold on the British gardener- if Geoff Hamilton recommended a plant on Gardener's World on a Friday night then stocks would be depleted across the country on Saturday morning. Flower shows were the place to be inspired by designers who would dazzle gardeners with exciting combinations. Now, what's happened? Gardeners just don't get excited as much any more; there's no more gardening hysteria. Maybe it was always inevitable, after all people move on in the search for new and more exciting things. Maybe gardening reached the limit of what it could do to capture the interest of the 'man on the street'.
Grasses looking great at Knoll Gardens; has our love of them waned a little?
I think one of the things that has brought mixed changes is internet plant shopping. While very convenient and a simple way to get hold of plants without leaving your home (or even your garden!) the internet has muted our connection with new and different plants. A trip to a good garden centre or nursery was an opportunity to become entranced by lovely new plants, often skilfully and artfully displayed together in combinations worthy of a Chelsea gold. This was the great day of the retailers who sold you plants that you could grow by allowing you to experience them first hand. Plants could be prodded, poked, stroked, sniffed and generally otherwise enjoyed first hand and, if they passed muster, could be put straight into the trolley and be taken home (oh yes, and paid for too!).

Now plants are bought by clicking a button their only chance to shine is by looking pretty for a carefully controlled picture, their only chance to express their texture, form, scent etc. by having carefully worded descriptions written. Where is the interaction with the plant beforehand? And where is the opportunity to ask someone about the plant there and then? Possibly even more crucially where is the opportunity to pick up a plant and carry it over to the other side of a sales area to compare it with another and see if colours work well? Some of the magic of buying plants for the garden has been lost through e-commerce, even though it has revolutionised the way we can buy plants. We're no longer enjoying shopping for plants as much as we used to.

The bright garish colours of Coleus seem to be fuelling their revival
How we buy plants is one thing, but what we buy is another. I think the biggest single influence on gardeners is now other gardeners. Rather than take the word of the TV or a magazine as gospel we now want to hear recommendations first hand. We want to see plants in other people's gardens, we want to speak to other gardeners about their first hand experiences with plants. This makes it very difficult to predict trends because people are now talking to each other instead of to a nursery. That sounds like a very commercial thing for me to say, but think of it this way... if we don't let nurseries know what we want then how will they know what to grow for us? And the more nurseries have to guess or just stick to their guns and pray they're growing the right thing, the more likely they are to make mistakes, lose valuable income and possibly cease to exist.

That would really take the fun out of it, wouldn't it?

(Oh, and my prediction for future trends? Well that would warrant another post...)

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Visiting Cornwall...

This post is only partly tongue-in-cheek.

I'm not Cornish but I've lived and worked here for just over a decade, and here's some advice if you're planning a visit to this wonderful part of the world.

Chances are that if you're driving to Cornwall you'll come down the A30 or the A38 once you've left the M5. Both of these roads are long and tedious, and you've got about an hour on them from Exeter before you even reach Cornwall. Given that they are so dull and monotonous I would strongly advise that you stop at or before Exeter to recharge your batteries- even the best driver can find the endless plodding exhausting, especially if you've already been driving for ages. Resist the urge to shorten the journey by putting your foot down; Devon and Cornwall Police are adept at picking up speeders along these roads- this is their patch and they will have no sympathy with you just because you're on holiday. A Volvo traffic car can easily lurk in the long grass of the verge or among the lorries, and they know all the best spots so don't take the risk.

If you're towing take extra care. Your motorway trip will have, on the most part, been straightforward. With three lanes you can overtake lorries and still leave people space to overtake you in the outside lane. The A30 and A38 are both dual carriageways, so overtake a lorry and you will quickly get yourself a following. Not a good following like a band or celebrity might have, no a long following of cars and motorbikes who would dearly like you to shift your arse out of the way! If you're not confident you can overtake quickly and safely then why not just take it easy until the road is better for it? Oh, and unlike the motorway network both the A30 and A38 have some impressive hills, so ease off when you're going down them yeh?! Every year I see jackknifed caravans and trailers on my way to and from work; each caravan on its side or trailer with contents strewn out all over the road represents a ruined holiday... better to take your time, wouldn't you agree?

West of Launceston (or Plymouth if you're on the A38) the roads get smaller. Although the A30 stays dual carriageway until you're near Bodmin (but widens again until you're near Truro) both roads go down to single carriageway roads once you get deep into Cornwall. Bottlenecks are commonplace. Don't forget the speed limit changes down even though it's the same road you've been on at a higher speed for ages. Also remember that tractors and lorries use these roads and in many areas you just can't overtake safely. So don't. Just take a deep breath, sit back and enjoy the ride. The Cornish way of life tends to be quite relaxed, and partly that's because it's usually impossible to get anywhere quickly! Be courteous to everyone else on the road and give yourself plenty of time to travel.

Sat-navs seldom work in Cornwall; villages and surrounding farms can share a postcode, so the sat-nav might take you far from where you want to be. Likewise sat-navs don't know that the road is too narrow for your caravan/motorhome. Use your common sense, and ideally buy a map instead!

If you meet someone in a country lane they won't automatically reverse for you just because you're not local or you've got a shiny new car; be ready to reverse (sometimes up hills or around corners) and if you can't reverse then don't drive in a county mainly made up with lanes or narrow roads!

The Place
Cornwall is a beautiful place and is well worth visiting. Remember though that it is a place much like where you live, where people live and work. Cornwall is not a recreation centre for you to come in and use at your leisure so treat it with the same respect you treat your area.

The moors are great places to walk, but take a map, a compass and some other basic supplies; the moors are beautiful but can be as dangerous as any other part of the UK. When the sun is shining the moors can bake in the heat, so take plenty of water (I know this from my own bitter experience). Remember also that you are in an agricultural county, so keep your dog on a lead so it can't even risk upsetting livestock (remember that it is legal for a farmer to shoot a dog that is worrying livestock- this would really upset your holiday so don't take the risk).

The beaches are also beautiful but can be treacherous. It's easy to get locked into a secluded cove when the tide comes in (people do, every year). It's not worth the risk; yes there are RNLI lifeboatmen who will risk their own lives to save you from your stupidity, but what if they don't get to you in time? And why should they save you if you've been careless?! If in any doubt whatsoever stay on the busier beaches, ideally ones with lifeguards. Oh, and as far as I know dogs are banned from all Cornish beaches during the summer.

Mobile phone coverage is very hit and miss in Cornwall, so if you're lost or in trouble don't rely on getting a good signal. Worth noting that if your phone won't get you through on 999 you might have more luck using the Europe-wide 112 number. Either way you'll need to tell them where you are, so if you don't know the best you can hope for is a very long wait. Buy that map!

The People
I've always found the people of Cornwall to be friendly, polite and hospitable, but there are ways to change that. Firstly Cornish people are proud of where they live, so if you spend your visit telling them how much better your home town is then you won't get a polite response! This is a fairly poor area, and a lot of the people you meet will be struggling to make ends meet; just because property is expensive in Cornwall don't imagine that everyone here is wealthy, it's often quite the reverse. Oh, and locals don't care that you're a doctor down for a week living the surf-dude dream, there was one last week, and there'll be one next week....

Despite its rural nature and remoteness from 'civilisation' as you might want to put it, Cornwall boasts several large towns and a city. You don't need to bring everything you might need from home, you can buy food etc. as easily here as you can at home, and using supermarkets, chain stores and especially local shops you will support local jobs and the local economy, plus you'll have a much more comfortable journey if you're not travelling and wondering if the frozen chicken you brought with you will still be safe to eat! There are pubs and cafes all over the place, so use them; many serve delicious fresh local food (although a few more 'poncy places' with extortionate prices have appeared, but there is now at least two KFCs in Cornwall!) and again your cup of tea and a piece of cake will help the local economy.

Treat the people you meet with respect. About 99.5% of visitors do, but the other 0.5% give visitors a bad name. Cornish people are fantastic and friendly and will help you out if you're lost, but they are not your guides/information service! Often nice and polite visitors at B&Bs/hotels etc. will get juicy tips from locals such as where's best to eat, nice places off the beaten track to visit, and when to go to attractions to avoid the queues. Rude people get the cold shoulder!

As with any rural area it is unwise to think the people around you are bumpkins; you might be from a big city far away but the people around you with their distinctive Cornish accents are solicitors, doctors, accountants, shopkeepers... they are people just like you and they will not take to being talked down to. It's only fair as you explore this wonderful place to treat its locals with courtesy.

Hope these pointers are of some use, so come and visit. Cornwall is a magical place, even in the rain!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

How to choose a Hydrangea

Hydrangeas are some of the most recognisable of all garden plants. They are deservedly popular for their showy flowers in summer, but with so many cultivars available just how do you choose the right one?

Firstly a little about Hydrangea flowers. Hydrangea flowers are themselves tiny and insignificant but are surrounded by sterile florets, and it is these that we see as 'flowers' in the flowerhead. Typical Hydrangeas fall into three groups, the mopheads with their dense domed heads of florets, the lacecaps with their tiny flowers surrounded by florets in typically flat heads, and the H. paniculata varieties with upright panicles of flowers. There are thousands of different Hydrangeas available, so choosing a variety can be difficult. I offer the following as advice.

Firstly avoid Hydrangea macrophylla 'Merveille Sanguine'. It's a popular old French variety and is found in many gardening books. The biggest appeal of this variety is its dark red-tinted leaves, but I'll be blunt and say that it's just not that good a variety. I've never seen a plant that is growing spectacularly well; typically this variety gets very sparse and woody over the years, despite careful pruning, and gets rather tatty and untidy. This, coupled with the fact that it doesn't seem to be particularly hardy, makes me happy to turn discerning gardeners away from this variety, despite its popularity.
H. 'Merveille Sanguine'-looks nice, but leave it at the garden centre!
Dusky leaves of H. 'Merveille Sanguine'
Thankfully if you want Hydrangeas with dark leaves there are alternatives, although they are lacecap varieties whereas H. 'Merveille Sanguine' is a mophead. I have two favourites that I am happy to recommend. H. 'Selina' is a fairly new variety and has beautiful deep burgundy leaves (especially in full sun) and large heads of pink/blue flowers (depending on soil type- see below).
Hydrangea 'Selina'
Deep burgundy leaves of H. 'Selina'
H. 'Dolce Kiss' (Dolkiss) has similarly good deep burgundy leaves to 'Selina' but has white flowers edged pink. I particularly like this variety for the two-tone effect of the flowers and rate this very highly. The flowers of this variety are very similar to H. serrata 'Kiyosumi', an old Japanese variety (I think a wild form), and I'd be very surprised if the latter wasn't a parent of H. 'Dolce Kiss'!
Leaves of H. 'Dolce kiss'
H. 'Dolce Kiss'- love these flowers!
My second piece of advice is to be careful what you buy. Garden centres will try to entice you to buy a nice Hydrangea full of flower but beware! Many garden centres sell Hydrangeas that have been treated with a product called Cycocel, which is a growth retardant. Plants are sprayed with this hormone product which shortens the spaces between leaves (internodes), making the plant more compact but not affecting flowering (or even enhancing flowering). This product is used in the mass production of Hydrangeas, Rhododendrons and sundry other plants to make those attractive dome shaped plants covered in flowers that are so appealing to garden centre shoppers. Resist! Although a Cycocel treated plant looks nice when you buy it, the following year it will behave differently, making longer internodes and flowering more typically, and over the next few years will turn into a rather ordinary Hydrangea, losing the appeal it had when you bought it. I strongly recommend that you go to a nursery and buy a Hydrangea based on the merits of the variety rather than buying what looks pretty at the garden centre. Buy a Hydrangea with strong stems (it might even strike you as looking a little leggy in the pot) and big healthy leaves, but don't expect more than a few flowerheads; you're buying a plant to look spectacular in your garden, not on the nursery! Ask about varieties, get advice about growing Hydrangeas in your area, and make an informed choice. By keeping away from hormone treated plants and choosing a variety carefully you will be buying a plant that will perform better in years to come.

While I'm recommending varieties I'd like to show you a few others that I like. H. 'Zorro' is an improvement on the old variety H. macrophylla 'Nigra', a variety grown principally for its black stems. H. 'Zorro' is a stronger variety, and produces large flower heads of pink or blue, depending on soil type (again, see below).
Hydrangea 'Zorro'- note the black stems!
Another favourite is H. 'Rotschwanz', a variety with rich deep red flowers on alkaline soils. This is a fairly compact variety and well worth growing.
Hydrangea 'Rotschwanz'
Possibly the best known fact about Hydrangeas is that their flowers vary in colour according to the pH of the soil they are growing in; pink alkaline or neutral soils, blue in acidic soils. Although this is correct it's not the pH of the soil that truly affects the colours but the amount of aluminium in the soil. If you have an alkaline soil and want your Hydrangea to turn blue you can add as many old iron nails, pine needles, tea bags etc. as you like but they won't have any effect. Add aluminium, for example by using a 'Hydrangea colourant', and your plant will, after a few applications, produce blue florets. It is worth noting though that it is a lot easier to turn a pink Hydrangea blue than to turn a blue Hydrangea pink; if the aluminium content of the soil is sufficient to make the Hydrangea flowers blue then it is impossible to stop the plant taking it up. Your best option if you wanted a pink Hydrangea but have acidic soil would be to grow your plant in a pot, but Hydrangeas are never really happy in pots so your plant would struggle. White flowered Hydrangeas are not affected by pH, and it is only H. macrophylla and H. serrata cultivars that change, so none of the H. paniculata varieties or any of the climbers are affected.
Hydrangea 'Zorro' changing from blue to pink
As important as pH is to the flower colour it is worth talking generally about soil and cultivation. Hydrangeas enjoy a deep, rich soil which retains enough water for them in summer while still draining in winter; Hydrangeas in full growth can get quite thirsty! In hot areas it's worth planting them with some shade from the sun during the hottest part of the day to help stop them drying out and to preserve the colour of their flowers and stop them fading. Most Hydrangeas are hardy, but in some areas H. macrophylla and varieties can suffer from cold winters, and as we've seen some varieties (like H. macrophylla 'Merveille Sanguine') can be more tender than others. If in doubt H. serrata varieties tend to be hardier. I'm not really sure where hybrids between H. serrata and H. macrophylla (such as H. 'Selina') are with hardiness; only time will tell. Hydrangeas tend to resent being in pots for any length of time. 
Hydrangea 'Mathilda Gutges' flowering happily