Saturday, August 1, 2015

Coffee addict's tree

In the centre of my front garden there is a small tree, well more shrub in size, with delicate variegated leaves. It has been there many years and grows very slowly.  Like so many plants in all our gardens, it is special to me as there is a story behind its acquisition. 



Many years ago (age rearing its head again!) I was asked by a plant collector friend from the USA if I could trace a supplier of Gymnocladus dioca 'Variegata', as he had a challenge on with a friend to be the first to acquire this rare tree. I knew of the  green species, Gymnocladus dioica as it grew in the grounds of Reading University, which I managed back in 1980's.  I remember it as a young tree with handsome green pinnate foliage. It was distinct in the winter as the leaves dropped in autumn but the petioles, leaf stalks did not fall till the spring, so it had a strong skeletonised shape over winter. It is a native to the American mid west and was for some years the state tree of Kentucky. Its seed is toxic when raw but when roasted can be used as a coffee substitute, hence the common name of Kentucky coffee tree.

A young Kentucky coffee tree

Winter - small 'branches' are actually leaf petioles

Back to the story! There were no commercial suppliers of the desired tree in the UK but I did track down a specimen in the Hillier arboretum and the Director agreed to supply scion wood. So the following winter I purchased three small plants of the green species tree and delivered these with the scion wood to Pershore college who in those days offered a grafting service. A year later I collected three small plants of the oh-so-desirable variegated form. Two were dispatched to my friend in the USA and the third I kept, which now graces my front garden. Sadly by the time the trees arrived, my USA friend's challenger had died, so it was all rather pointless. But nevertheless I have a pretty small tree with a curious story!

The Reading tree when I returned in 2010

Thursday, July 23, 2015

So very English

Garden visiting on a Sunday afternoon is so very English. I'm not aware that there is anything like the National Garden scheme with its iconic Yellow Book in any other country, although maybe someone will put me right if there is.  So last Sunday I went to visit a beautiful garden near to Nottingham. My TomTom satnav led me through some tiny lanes with high hedges that reminded me of Cornwall but despite my apprehension, did lead me to the right location. Signs directed me to a nearby field where I navigated the ruts and cowpats to park. At least it was dry! Having duly paid my £3.50 and visited the plant sales table,  I was free to explore. It was  a beautiful 3 acre garden and meticulously maintained by the two owners. Lots of colour and many different plants. I'll let the pictures speak for the garden. 









My only criticism was that it was all very similar. None of the borders had any colour schemes or themes. In a garden of this size it would have created greater variety to have given each border or area an identity of its own. Having said that, as well as lots of colourful borders, there was a woodland garden, a couple of pools, wildflower meadow and a rock garden. Inevitably I also took lots of pictures as inspiration for paintings too. 












Friday, July 17, 2015

Back to Blighty

Well I'm  back in the UK once again but only for a short while this summer. This is the first year I have had a Green Card and so able to stay in the USA for as long as I wanted. Palm Springs is now very hot with daytime temperatures well over 40C (104F). Although many complain about this, I would prefer the heat to the chill and clouds of the UK although I must admit I love the green lush landscape here. Arriving back last week, I got out of the taxi at my house to find my two good friends Geoff and Jose tidying my front garden. What a wonderful welcome and the garden looked spectacular. 



Coming indoors, I was delighted to find that my lodger Michael had taken equal care of my home. A week after arriving and I'm finding it difficult to know what to do - no weeding and no cleaning needed (unlike past years and previous lodgers!) I'm just here till early August when Philip returns for a brief deja vu experience before we return to the USA via London, Southampton and the Queen Mary 2! In the meantime do enjoy some pics of my little UK garden. By the way - check out my August 2012 post to see the story of the Gymnocladus and also see earlier pics of the garden.




Tetrapanax doing well again this year

Astrantia probably 'Sunningdale Variegated'

Impatiens omeana seems happy

Gymnocladus dioica Variegata - so slow growing

Fatsia 'Annelise' - bit slow but looks OK

Schizophragma 'Moonlight' - wish it would climb UP over the brickwork not across the glass!

Acanthus 'Hollard's Gold' doing well but not very gold

Schefflera getting burnt again - too much sun - what in the UK?

The shady border and Fatsia 'Spiders Web' looking good

Aralia elata Variegata - the most expensive plant I have ever bought!


The steep bank finally looking colonised and colourful

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Desert or oasis?

In a couple of days I return to the UK where the temperature is in the cool 60's and there is an 80% chance of rain. Here its HOT and DRY! Traditionally Palm Springs has been regarded as a oasis in the desert and has in the past been landscaped with lush plantings and verdant green lawns. In some ways it was the warm climate and the colorful range of plants that attracted us to the desert nearly 15 years ago. And I have to admit that dazzling pink bougainvilleas, orange bird of paradise and  and bright red fire cracker plants still excite me. Traditionally landscapes were watered daily and it was a common sight to see water running down the streets from badly adjusted or leaking irrigation equipment. Added to this, there are some 130 golf courses in Palm Springs swallowing an incredible 300 million gallons of water per course.



But things are changing and California is experiencing a serious drought.  The average rainfall here should be 4.97 inches per year but in recent years with little rain and low mountain snowfall, it has been less than 2 inches and reservoirs are at an all time low.  On 1 April 2015 the Governor of California ordered a statewide water restriction, requiring all users to reduce by 25%. Fountains have stopped operating and the local water authorities offer grants to remove lawns and replace with desert planting. Gardens may only be watered Monday, Wednesday and Friday and only between 7pm and 7am.



For those that have traditional landscapes, its a question between playing a gamble to see if lawns and planting will survive on such restrictions or investing in the removal of lawns and replacement with drought tolerant planting and gravel. Local water authorities are offering grants for converting grass to desert landscapes. Firms supplying grass maintenance equipment must be seeing dramatic drops in their profits! In contrast there must currently be a huge upsurge in new landscape works and nurseries are offering a great range of exciting desert plants.

Brown lawns - an increasingly common sight




In Palm Springs, the first phase of the Tahquitz Canyon landscaping completed last year has settled in well despite my earlier reservations and the second phase is now nearing completion. Altogether this makes a ribbon of planting from the airport to the town center in total two miles long. Our local paper, the Desert Sun has made huge changes around its premises, removing huge areas of grass and changing to desert landscape. On a city scale there are many areas of lawn to change to desert landscape. The airport alone has 10 acres of grass. Removing 5 acres of that grass would cost $2 million, a figure beyond the current budget allocation. 


Tahquitz Canyon - Phase 1 landscaping completed last year - this and above pic



Tahquitz Canyon Phase 2 landscape - just being completed now - this and next pic

New palm trees
Desert Garden completed in 2010


A great colorful desert planting with medium water requirements

A less successful scheme. All the grass has gone to be replaced with uniform gravel and a scattering of small plants. But the big mistake is to leave all the water hungry Jacaranda trees amongst which there are a number of palms.

In my own small yard we have a scheme that is mainly colored gravels with a boundary planting of desert shrubs and a bed of cacti and succulents. As renters we have created this on a low budget.  The irrigation is divided between two stations giving less water to the arid plantings and a little more to the shrubby areas. 






Back in 2006 the UK had a heatwave summer, complete with drought. Soils were bone dry, lawns went straw yellow, plants shriveled and trees performed an early leaf fall well before the normal autumn. Everyone was quoting climate change and my publishers asked me to write a book on gardening in dry conditions - 'Waterwise Gardening' was the result. Sadly by the time the book was completed and printed, a year or so later, the UK was experiencing  severe wet weather and flooding in many areas. Not surprisingly the book didn't reach the bestseller's list!



Even further back in the UK in 1976 during another hot dry summer, I recall a slogan that suggested 'Bath with a friend', to which many people added 'on top of your car, in the middle of your lawn. Hmmm - could be interesting!