So during the barren winter months one has to find other distractions to amuse oneself, such as eating and talking. At a recent lunch party (ooh, get her!) I found myself sitting with a retired geography teacher discussing the advantages and disadvantages of London clay in horticulture. (Cor, mixing in the social circles of North London takes a lot of beating!) Well you could have knocked me down with a feather! Did you know that the Pleistocene ice-sheets really did stop at Henly’s Corner* (which is the junction of the Finchley and North Circular Roads). I don’t know how I lived without that knowledge until now.
Spurred on by this revelation I decided it was high time to get back out there amongst said clay and welcome in the new gardening year. As always I venture out with an open mind, and in my thirst for knowledge I discovered two new techniques:
It’s always better to hard prune when in a bad mood. After a particularly grim morning I decided to vent my spleen on the poor unsuspecting roses. What I ended up with were neat little 12” goblet shaped bushes, instead of the usual leggy specimens resulting from hedging my bets. Moving onto the deciduous shrubs, I faced down overgrown sambucus nigra and cotinus coggygria, rubbing alongside one another like reluctant bedfellows. Secateurs in hand, I pronounced, “You grow, you go,” before hard pruning the cotinus in favour of the sambucus. It’ll be the survival of the fittest. As the saying goes, “There’s no sentiment in business – or pruning”.
Always hard prune ivy in the pouring rain. I dread this task because the dust from dried ivy invariably chokes the life out of me. However by happy accident I discovered that, whilst pruning in the rain may result in pneumonia, it does prevent asphyxiation.
Talking of gardening techniques, for those of you who are yoga junkies like wot I am, here are a few adaptations to poses that may come in handy whilst working in your garden:
Yogi squat or Crow pose. Particularly useful for straining your Achilles tendon whilst pruning ground cover that has spread into the lawn edges.
Warrior One. Stand upright, legs apart, neck at 90 degree angle to shoulders, arms stretched right out of sockets overhead, long loppers in hand, whilst attempting to chop off errant whips on ancient apple tree. Repeat several times then give up and assume Balasana or Childs Pose.
Warrior Three. Great pose for pitching forward to grapple with tenacious clematis adhered to fence, whilst balancing on one leg in order to avoid trampling all over emerging bulbs and perennials in herbaceous border.
Corpse Pose. At the end of every Practice it is customary to rest inShevasana. Lie down on back and surrender yourself to Nature, finally acknowledging that She knows best and that you will try to work with her at every future opportunity.
Seriously though, after a couple of invigorating spring cleaning sessions in the brisk winter sunshine I am delighted to report that I have got my enthusiasm back. The garden has been tamed into submission; at least, I don’t cringe whenever I step outside now. (Look straight ahead, avoid eye contact with patio cannas, last year’s foliage hanging on like tattered rags.)
Day length is noticeably longer. Iris reticulata, winter aconites, crocus and snowdrops are blooming. Hellebores are in flower. Buds are swelling everywhere. Don’t you just love the tight, bright new shoots clustering in profusion on previously barren stems? Only trouble now is holding myself back from pruning less robust shrubs like fuchsia, abelia & hydrangea.
Looking forward, my T & M trial seeds have arrived! I’m being more realistic this year, trying to stick to plants I know I can grow – not into pushing the boundaries, too much like hard work – and at least I shall have something to report!
Tomato Artisan Mixed. Having said that, I tried these last year but they didn’t germinate. Love the colours.
Incidentally the Green Bin Men still haven’t been; that’s 7 weeks and counting. I put ours out last night (the bin, not the men…although.….) in eager anticipation, neighbours following suit shortly afterwards on the assumption that my being The Gardener on our road, I must be In “The Know”. No show. Am not even sure that the Bin Men know when they should return.
I leave you now with a caution: Refrain from thinking spring is on its way as it usually snows on Feb 20th.
*HENLY’S CORNER – IN THE ICE AGE By Helen O’Brien
What has become almost a local folk legend was confirmed recently(Blogger’s Note: 1979 actually. Still, extremely recent in the grand scheme of things) by the Geological Museum, in answer to a query prompted by current road improvement proposals. But the Finchley glacier did not, as popularly believed, come from the last glaciation but from a much earlier one, approximately a quarter of a million years ago – known, in English terminology, as the Anglian advance; or as the Mindel glaciation in the European Alpine sequence.
I’m just not feeling the love! Apart from sloping off to the greenhouse every few days to check on the cuttings (progress not great.) I’ve done nothing NOTHING, I TELL YOU! Oh the guilt! I’ve come up with every excuse: it’s too wet, too cold, too early, too late. Apart from one manic flurry of activity on 23 December, that’s it! Talking of which, having overstuffed our green bin within two hours of the last refuse collection for six weeks, it has now started to compost itself and has reduced in volume by a quarter!
Now, it’s not that the garden can’t wait – it’s hanging in a sort of suspended animation – it just feels odd not to have deadlines (self-imposed I grant you) to meet. Apart from the miscanthus, oh yes and the slimy brown kniphofia ribbons, which really could do with the chop now, the entire landscape is looking bedraggled and somehow in this dim January half-light, saps one’s enthusiasm. Due to lack of will, I never got round to pruning back the cannas on the patio and now I’m thinking I might as well leave them on as protection against inevitable cold snaps; if I cut them down all I’d end up doing is covering them with fleece anyway.
Nandina domestica & Nandina domestica ‘Twilight’
On a more positive note, I have managed to find the energy to fill up the numerous bird feeders regularly. Fussy eaters all, we have had to shop around for a particular seed mix and give away our existing supply to my mother (for her birds, not her, silly!) Mind you, seeing as she only lives 500 yards down the road, the very same birds may well chance upon this alternative food supply, only to turn their beaks up again. I have been desperate to spend some gift vouchers on a squirrel proof caged suet block feeder. Do you think I can find one? Out of stock everywhere. Still, as a consolation I treated myself to some more spring bulbs: Our local garden centre has been selling off five packets for £1 so I bought chionodoxa, puschkinia and erythronium. All I’ve got to do now is plant them. Highlight of the New Year was the arrival of T&M NEW Spring catalogues. True to form I have placed my order for all plugs orange. Begonia ‘Fragrant Falls Orange Delight’, begonia elata ‘Solenia Apricot’, begonia Non-Stop Mocca Bright Orange and petunia ‘Sweetunia Suzie Storm’. (Not to mention last year’s overwintering begonias, already showing one or two pips…..) And it’s not all gloom and doom outside. I’m quite into nandinas right now. In addition to our nandina domestica, which is covered in shiny red berries, I’ve acquired nandina domestica ‘Twilight’, part of a new range of dwarf Heavenly Bamboos ideal for containers. Talking of containers, the red cyclamen & cornus against the black grass strikes a cheerful chord amongst the brown landscape, and the papery flowers of hydrangea Zorro held on top of its black stems looks rather arty.
Red cyclamen, cornus with black grass, Hydrangea ‘Zorro’
So to while away the long boring hours indoors (lovely actually, all snuggled up on the sofa with various felines, binge watching USA plastic surgery Before and After documentaries) I’ve been cataloguing all my press cuttings (ooh, get her!) into a folder. The cupboard was so crammed with dozens of back edition publications that I was afraid wood worm would move in and eat them. What a trip down Memory Lane that has been. The first edition of Garden News to feature its readers’ 4 Corners Gardening column was published on 26 January 2005 and we have been contributing on a monthly basis ever since. Never mind the changing landscape, the range of hairstyles is breath-taking! And back then David even had hair! Happy 13th anniversary to us. I reckon we must have outlasted most of the editorial team in that time. Amazing to see how the garden has developed from Central Lawn surrounded by Narrow Borders to No Lawn overwhelmed by Plants Everywhere.
The Garden, 2005 & Now!
Clearly Nature isn’t suffering from lack of encouragement from me right now. Spurred on by writing this blog, I’ve just ventured outside to take some photos and have come back in with very mixed feelings.
Budding shrubs, Mad Melianthus and Heavenly Hellebore
Optimism: Hellebore hybrids are emerging, Lords and Ladies foliage marbling shady places, iris reticulata, snowdrops, narcissi all popping up.
Trepidation: Buds swelling on deciduous shrubs too soon already. More guilt: hardy geraniums and various withered perennials need cutting back. Relief: some of the cuttings are still alive.
Admiration: overwintering cannas and salvias are sending up new shoots.
Challenged: good grief, the hardy fuchsia, sambucus and cotinus are going to need some serious reduction. Amazement: Mad Melianthus Major has Four Fat Flower spikes on it.
Anticipation: my beloved roses are begging for their winter pruning; can’t wait to set my newly serviced secateurs upon them next month. Too long, too long!
So at last I can feel the sap rising. Any day now you will find me outside bonding with my garden again. A Happy New Gardening Year to you all.
Whilst Cyprus enjoys an Indian summer, (or even a Cypriot summer for that matter,) the UK is plunging head first into winter. Having just spent a glorious week in 26ᵒc Paphos, staying with friend Naomi – how thoughtful of her to relocate to such a lovely home – it was quite a shock to the system to return to dreary 13ᵒc London. (Feel guilty now saying that, as if being disloyal to a family member!) However, I actually find myself to be more acclimatised to the cooler weather, spending so much time as I do outdoors. Who would have thought it ! In fact today we are experiencing a lovely crisp sunny day in Finchley and I feel invigorated as I pick the last of the windfall apples from underneath our ancient tree. For some reason they are the size of cricket balls this year so quite glad I wasn’t underneath when they fell.
Excuse my ignorance but until our recent visits to Cyprus I had no idea just how close to the Middle East it was, and how that impacted on its flowers. Plants that we treat as annuals here grow into shrubs and trees over there! Lantana: neighbour Anne nurses her cherished lantanas over the winter like delicate invalids, but Over There they grow into huge hedges with stems as thick as your fingers. The collective fool’s errand of trying to grow lavender successfully in the clay soil of the Hampstead Garden Suburb (henceforth to be referred to as The Suburb) is in deep contrast with the robust dense aromatic shrubs thriving in the thin stony soil of the Med. When visiting mountainside Monastery Neophytos we were captivated by the sunken courtyard garden, viewed from its ancient cloisters. Colour and vigour on a grand scale. Huge clumps of ginger and canna lilies, brugmansias growing into trees, Ali Baba pots of bougainvillaea and oleander, all surrounded by characteristic *Cypress trees. And the roses! We shouldn’t be surprised by their presence amongst all this exotica, considering their origins:
The first known paintings of a rose are actually frescoes, the earliest example of which was discovered in Crete around 1600 B.C.
Crusader Robert de Brie is often given credit for bringing the Damask rose from Persia to Europe sometime between 1254 and 1276. It takes its name from Damascus in Syria.
(*As to the reason why its Cypress trees and not Cyprus trees, I just don’t want to know.)
Bearing in mind that this is a gardening blog, I shall make my next paragraph brief: Second only to the flora, Cyprus means Cats to me. Cats at Naomi’s apartment complex, cats around your ankles at bars and restaurants, and above all, due no doubt to the significant British ex-pat community, cat sanctuaries, the largest of which Tala Cat Sanctuary, run by two Brits, has at present over 750 cats. For those of you feline phobics I make no apologies for including a photo of feeding time, a frenzy reminiscent of piranha fish! There is a tenuous link to horticulture here – feral cat communities thrive in the shelter of oleander and lantana hedges planted in raised beds all over the island!
And so to our return. I had imagined that autumn would have turned to winter in our absence and that I would be able to run amok with the secateurs, cutting everything back. I’m tired, I wish everything would die so that I can come indoors and have a rest! But what do I find? Salvias in full flower, a rainbow of colours; no way was I going to dig them up, having waited so long for their finest hour. Leaves still stubbornly sticking to their branches so no point raking until they are all down. Ergo, no chance of applying mulch to borders yet. (How daft are we? We rake off leaves then apply mulch. Why not just leave leaves to rot? Looks messy. Expensive intensive counterintuitive step!)
Still, there’s plenty to do in the meantime. In the Control Room (aka greenhouse) the salvia, fuchsia and penstemon cuttings I took last month are flourishing in their propagator (as is the electricity bill.) I’ve been so encouraged by my success that I have taken cuttings of coleus Campfire, and, fingers crossed, so far so good. I suppose now that the aforementioned cuttings are sprouting new leaves that means they’ve rooted, so I need to pot them on now, do I? Or do I wait until spring? Decisions, decisions!
And I shall not be idle outside either. (Why not? Please, can I be idle soon?) For the two large terracotta pots flanking the rustic arch into the fernery (now doesn’t that sound grand) I have bought a pair of cornus Alba Sibirica and half a dozen ophio-watsit black grasses to surround them. Now I come to think of it, some white bulbs would make a good contrast so I might just have to go to the nursery again; what a hardship! In the two black planters outside the front door I’ve planted Madonna tulips, Pueblo, Minnou and Falconet species narsissi, topped off with evergreen ferns and white cyclamen. Quite uncharacteristically tasteful for me.
Last Christmas I treated myself to six T&M hyacinth Midnight Mystic bulbs for a festive display in our front porch. Having carefully lifted them after flowering, I transferred them to the greenhouse to dry off, finally removing their dead foliage and roots ready for storage. I must have got bored or distracted because there they sat in a 6” plastic pot under the staging all through the rest of this year until I accidentally found them when tidying up in October! Still, they felt firm enough so I potted them up in shallow terracotta bulb pans and put them in a dark cupboard for a couple of weeks, and hey presto, they produced shoots! Now happily ensconced in the porch once again, they are sprouting away with visible buds. Amazing resilience!
There are some strange combinations going on in the borders right now, no doubt due to Mother Nature’s seasonal confusion: Late summer flowering Salvia Black & Blue with early spring flowering Coronilla valentina glauca ‘Citrina’ (or Bastard Senna – who knew?) It’s mortal outside but with no frosts and plenty of bright sunshine I feel like the grim reaper pulling up the annual container displays on the patio.
And whilst we talking of odd weather conditions, don’t ever moan to me about the vagaries of the British weather. Whilst In Cyprus it was too hot for me to sit in the sun during the day, but as soon as the sun went down, out came my suede fur lined jacket (travelling attire – I come from a bygone generation who still dress up to travel)) for evening excursions!
And as one of our favourite celebrated gardeners would say: whatever the weather, enjoy your garden.
Just when I thought, that’s it for another year, I find dozens of windfall apples, pounds of grapes and enough dahlias to fill a church, all needing to be harvested, sorted, washed, displayed or cooked. Mercifully my fig plant didn’t produce any viable fruits (hate figs, don’t know what all the fuss is about) and the gojiberry, (nasty little fruits, taste like cough syrup) only had about a dozen berries on it so the birds are welcome to those. So here I am, trawling the internet for grape recipes. Here we go: ’35 Grape Recipes‘ Foie gras, peanuts and grapes, hmm I think not. Chilled cucumber, apple and grape gazpacho; that’s more like it. Do I want to make grape jelly? Frankly no, I have enough preserves for breakfast to last me out. This is what happens if you try to palm off excess produce onto your unsuspecting friends; they gratefully make jams, pickles and jellies to give back to you!
A late show of autumn colour.
There is nothing gradual about the onset of Autumn Colour you know. A long weekend in the National Forest Derbyshire mid-October proved disappointing in that department. Likewise on our return home, a quick inspection of the ‘Grounds’ revealed a rather windswept tableau of same old tired vistas. But come the following morning and hey presto, as if by magic, autumn colour had transformed the garden overnight. I kid you not! Miscanthus to buttery yellow, cotinus to crimson, lythrum to orange. And we’ve had some eerie visual effects created by Hurricane Ophelia; early afternoon light levels dropped to a mustard yellow, a red sun hanging from leaden grey skies, intensifying the seasonal tones with a fluorescent glow. But, here’s a thing! I was having my highlights done at the time, blonde and red streaks, but my hairstylist and I were so busy speculating as to whether the end of the world was nigh, that we left the colour on too long and the blonde streaks turned out pink! So now I have my very own autumn colour! Synchronicity! And as for Hurricane Brian, (really?) no sooner had the autumn colour got into its stride than it was all blown off the trees by the gales. Not Mother Nature’s finest hour.
Giant salvia, melianthus major and cordyline
Anyway, back to the serious world of gardening (never). Having captured the brief flash of autumn colour on camera, (blink and you would have missed it!) it was off with your heads as far as fading perennials were concerned: Down came veronicastrum, eupatorium, sanguisorba & thalictrum, once dominant in the late summer early autumn landscape, now well past their best. Contrary to popular belief I find that this does not deplete the garden, it merely shifts the focus onto current showstoppers: giant salvias, miscanthus & calamagrostis, verbena bonariensis in the back, with magnificent melianthus major (silly thing is just sending up its first flower of the year) and cordyline in the front. In fact I will go as far as to say it’s given the garden a whole new lease of life and I am once again in love with it!
Bidens putting on a late show & tomato ‘indigo cherry drops’
When I am truly too wet through to carry on working outside – tell me something, why does it always start pouring down when you are right in the throes of shovelling a huge pile of manure onto the flower beds – I’ve been pottering about happily in the greenhouse. It’s more like a grown up Wendy House; you can play for hours, sweeping, rearranging and tidying up. Looks like the mice might be back too. Salvia cuttings are in the propagator, sick heucheras are recovering from the ravages of vine weevil. And my tomatoes are a revelation. T&M Indigo Cherry Drops and Garnet are so prolific, and I found Mountain Magic and Gardeners Delight amongst the cordons, which I must have grown from seed. Such fun! With so many trusses just at the point of ripening I am loath to take them out of the greenhouse beds, but I so desperately need the space for my salvias and cannas to be overwintered. Still, I dare say I am exaggerating. (Moi?) It can wait. Chillies and sweet peppers produced zilch so they can go and anyway, the salvias have only just really got into their stride and the cannas are flowering in the stratosphere they are so tall.
The T&M begonias (why would I get them from anyone else, they are so easy to grow from tubers and last from year to year) are just beginning to get a bit leggy, their vibrant flowers valiantly blooming away on the patio. Friend Anne has read my previous blog and sussed out my accidental theft so this year I shall be labelling them up meticulously. But not just yet, I reckon I can get another week or two out of them.
So recently we attended the London Gardens Society 2017 awards ceremony and jolly-good-buffet-with-plenty-of-wine at The Guildhall, City of London. I spotted horticultural editor, Claire Foggett who used to work for Garden News, and who instigated the Over The Fence feature that I have been writing for since its inception about 12 years ago. (I’ve seen’em come and I’ve seen’em go: I am their longest standing contributor, but who’s bragging). Anyway, who was she chatting to but a very tall gentleman who, as it turns out, was none other than T&M’s very own Managing Director Paul Hansord! He was of course at a distinct disadvantage, as I recognised him instantly from their catalogues and he of course didn’t know me from Adam. Oh and by the way, WE WON AGAIN: Best Small Back Garden 2017. As did friend Diane, who won Best Large Back Garden for the second year running. Good job too, as I had warned her beforehand, “If you win and I don’t, I am not entirely sure I will ever speak to you again!”
Listen, I’m all for a challenge but opening your garden for charity in October? That’s a new one on me! Way, way back in April our garden was recommended to a local U3A group by A Friend (you know who you are!) as ideal for visiting in autumn. How flattering, I preened, that said friend thought our garden was interesting and attractive enough to warrant paying guests at that time of year. So I said yes. Of course.
Well, when other NGS Garden Openers are hanging up their secateurs and tea towels, here I am, pruning, feeding, sweeping, planting and baking. OK so it’s only 15 visitors but all the same………… Usually by now I have started cutting back spent perennials, emptying hanging baskets, lifting semi-hardies, but with Open Day in mind it’s a whole new ball game! Cutting back has been minimal, a balancing act between leaving on waning top growth and creating gaps in the borders. Normally I allow dead foliage and fallen leaves to rot down where they land in the borders, but as this just adds to the overall look of decay, I have swept them up. I realise that as gardeners, the group will understand the natural seasonal process of decline, but with so much still in flower I want to promote a sense of vigour and vitality in the garden. Still, to a certain extent it’s all smoke and mirrors whatever the time of year, so with well swept paths and patio, a fresh top dressing of mulch and some judicious deadheading, the garden should not disappoint.
Ipomea growing through the roof of the pergola and Bidens still showing some lovely colour
In the process of preparation I have however been subjected to a deeply distressing experience from which I may never fully recover! Winky the Sphynx cat (bless her, her one tooth is never going to do anything more harmful than frighten critters to death) brought a live toad into the living room! I found her frothing at the mouth, the toad playing dead at her feet. On seeing me she picked up said toad and ran upstairs with it, final destination under-the-bed, hotly pursued by a retinue of fellow felines, with me bringing up the rear. David to the rescue, toad liberated to the pond, Winky given mouth wash and floor given the Wet Wipe treatment.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, preparations. Having started propagating perennials for next year’s plant sales (which includes grading plastic pots by size, with corresponding pot carry trays, for ease of storage, transportation and pricing – can’t you just tell I have a background in retail!) I find I have nowhere to put them during the visit. Can’t leave them out for people to trip over. Can’t just shove’em in the greenhouse in case visitors fancy taking a look at my Fabulous Tomatoes (more of that later). “I know,” says David, “they can go on the roof terrace, no-one’s gonna wanna to climb up there”, (not to put too fine a point on it, the visitors being somewhat elderly). No-one, that is, other than me, having to get them up there (the plants not the visitors) and back down again with ‘My Knees’.
Tomatoes ripening on the vine and a beautiful begonia bloom
Talking of Fabulous Tomatoes, my T&M Cherry Drops and Garnet, grown from seed, are finally ripening. I offered one of the purple jewels to David to try and, after wrinkling up his nose at it, murmuring suspiciously, “What’s that? Are you trying to poison me?” he reluctantly popped it into his mouth. His expression changed to one of pleasurable surprise. Tangy and sweet, he pronounced it to be the nicest tomato he’d ever tasted! Trouble is I am not sure if it was Cherry Drops or Garnet so I shall just have to keep comparing them as they ripen on the vine. They’re never going to reach the salad bowl.
And begonias, big, bright, blowsey blooms. (Ooh alliteration!) As well as overwintering my own tubers, I store friend Anne’s for her and I guess somehow the tubers must have got muddled up because I have one that I’ve never seen before: 4” wide orange doubles with red edges. Passiflora and T&M ipomoeas have climbed through the pergola, flowering right under our bedroom window.
Canna lilies still looking magnificent
But surely it’s the Wyoming and Durban cannas that will cause the most stir. At 8ft tall, multiple orange flower spikes, emerging from giant black paddle shaped leaves, have bloomed continuously since July. I was astonished to find that the root ball of one such plant, recently lifted from the raised bed out front, had easily tripled in size: it went in in May at about 4” and came out mid-September at over 12”. I’ve had to store it in half an old compost sack. So let’s do the math (as they say in good old USA): if I created 9 such divisions from three giant overwintered clumps this spring, then next spring I could potentially end up with 27 such plants!
Shame the visitors won’t get to see my prized dahlias (yes, they won first prize at our Horticultural Society autumn flower show). They must have been on my allotment for at least four years, never dug up, protected by a thick layer of multipurpose compost, and they too are record size this summer. Trebbiano and Fox Mix, T&M trial plants from summer 2012, have reached 6ft and have yielded at least 2 dozen flowers on a weekly basis with plenty more to come. I hope that the as–yet-unnamed dahlias in this year’s trial, now planted alongside, will perform this well in time.
Salvias confertiflora and miscanthus
Oh well, must get on, it’s been raining all night, the miscanthus grass is all splayed out at 45 degrees, the 7ft salvias confertiflora and involucrata (I do love a good Latin name don’t you?) are leaning dangerously, so tall that their stakes have become woefully inadequate. Forecast for Visitor Day not good. Still hopefully the cakes won’t collapse even if the plants do.