Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Have I got the bottle?

A few posts back I said that I didn't get sentimental about plants. I'd better cross reference that or readers will quote my words back to me when I admit that I'm agonising over removing the bottlebrush that's growing on the front wall of my house in Nottingham. This is a plant of Callistemon citrinus and growing is perhaps an exaggeration, as surviving is a better description of its current state. I planted this probably ten years ago and admit its a totally inappropriate place as it faces north. It was the only empty spot at the time - lame excuse, I know! Despite this, the said plant is now about 1.5m high and has during some summers flowered spasmodically. It survived the cold winter of 2010/2011 but did not flower last summer and I'm unsure that its going to do much  this year. In a small garden, every plant has to perform well and this is a key spot right next to the front door. So I guess its got to go but when a plant has stoically struggled against the conditions I imposed on it, I feel guilty for consigning it to the local authority shredder!

Callistemon citrinus - the offending non-performer

So what should I replace it with? Any new plant needs to have a narrow habit as its a tight slot between the door and the front window, must tolerate heavy clay soil and look good for a long season. Maybe this is the spot for a wall shrub and a slender climber? I rather like Fatshedera lizei 'Anniemieke' for its wonderful brazen gold foliage, but its habit is poor and it would need a support of some sort and constant tying in. Hedera 'Sulphur Heart' (syn 'Paddy's Pride') is another similar favourite but I snobbishly feel its become rather commonplace.
X Fatshedera lizei 'Anniemieke'
Possibly I could run a slender clematis through it, maybe something pale blue like 'Cezanne'. It is not a vigorous grower but has a long flowering season. But again a north wall is not ideal for clematis so I may be repeating the problem.

Clematis 'Cezanne'

Another possibility would be Hydrangea serrata 'Miranda', the variegated form of climbing hydrangea. Hopefully this form would be slower than the normal green one and not swamp the allocated space. But does it flower as well? I admit I've only ever seen young plants in garden centres.

Hydrangea serrata 'Miranda'
Then there is the postman who likes to walk across the front garden, so maybe I'll plant a nice prickly Rubus cockburnianus 'Golden Vale' to deter him. Not a serious suggestion, but a factor in the equation - plants to survive the postman's boots!

But I have just just bought a plant of Sinocalycanthus raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine' and I wonder if this might be the spot for it. Books suggest it tolerates some shade so maybe this is it! I'll continue to ponder on this and see if I've got the 'bottle' to dig out the bottlebrush. If anyone has any other ideas or comments, do suggest!

Sinocalycanthus raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine'

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Accident or design?

I recently read a comment that went along the lines of  - 'there's no need to hire a professional garden designer, as effective landscaping is little more than common sense and observation, not rocket science or brain surgery'. If that is so, I wonder why there are so many gardens that are badly designed or quite simply, not planned at all. The author of that comment, and I forget where I read it, is either supremely arrogant or actually has no idea of design themselves. Maybe the real trick is to create gardens that look relaxed and a happy accident rather than contrived but to my mind that is the skill of good design not a lack of it. 

Cancer Research Garden - Chelsea 2011 - beautifully relaxed planting
There are many skilled gardeners that have gardens full of wonderful plants but which do not meet their potential because of the way the garden is designed. Regular readers will know that I have a strong feeling for colour and how it is used in both architecture and gardens. There are some colours that just do not go together like yellow and pink. Most blends of these two colours just shriek. By using a very pale lemon or primrose with a deep cerise pink, you can just about get away with it but its a bold combination and often goes wrong.

Great plants but together?
The assertion that any and all colours go together in the garden also doesn't hold true. Sadly most seed merchants seem to be colour blind as the blends of colours in mixed packets of seed are rarely successful. Take this mix of bedding pelargoniums. You can't fault them for bloom size, vigour or performance but they just scream at each other.

Lincoln City centre - Pelargonium 'Headache Mixed'
The next picture shows a garden open under the National Garden Scheme - actually a very impressive garden, full of great plants and with a wonderful vegetable garden and greenhouses packed with fruit and vegetables. But it needs the eye of a designer. There are too many small fiddly trees breaking up the lawn in a random way. And what do the blobby little bits of bedding around the trees achieve - nothing except a fidgety disruption of the lawn. Then there's the quite elaborate centrepiece pergola with its two impressive statues - quite a statement. But if I tell you the garden extends about another 30-50 or more yards beyond the hedge, you will realise that the owners have missed a trick. If they had cut an opening in the hedge, created a broad grass walk to the end of the garden and placed the pergola there, the garden would have been twice as impressive and there would still have been room for the vegetable plots either side of the main vista. (If by any chance the owners are reading, then apologies for the criticism and I'll happily give you some design suggestions!)

As the 18C landscape designer Brown would have said 'It has capabilities!'
I'm going to finish with a more positive image, a small garden in Derby  which is featured in my book Designing Small Gardens. This is no more than the plot behind a Victorian terrace house but it is beautifully designed. The shape of the square plot has been altered by creating a circular lawn. The garden is enclosed enough to give that feeling of  tranquility but not darkened by the planting and the glimpse of trees in other gardens and slate roofs in the distance extends the interest. A matrix of trees and shrubs gives a skeleton to the planting which is filled out  with a carefully matched mix of perennials, roses and bulbs. Colours are soft, mainly pastel shades with  a few touches of dark foliage. It is a perfect example of a well designed small garden.

Now this is what I call design in a small garden!
Now I'm not sure whether that garden was created by common sense, rocket science or  good design but its a winner! This and the neighbouring garden are open by appointment in June and July under the National Garden Scheme. Check details here

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Exotic thoughts!

Its tricky trying to get all worked up over exotic plantings when the clouds are as thick and grey as an army blanket, and the temperature is hovering around 47F (8C). However I need to think ahead and plan some new plantings for my garden for this summer. In recent years I have done a small but lush and colourful planting, mainly of seasonal exotics - Ricinus, Cannas, Dahlias, Coleus, Brugmansia and so on. But this is a bit expensive when I have no greenhouse to overwinter the stock and besides its time for a change.

I like plants with attitude - good foliage, bold shapes and preferably bright colours. However I am wondering whether to go for greens and whites in one area this summer? The front garden also needs a makeover and with the impending hosepipe ban for the Midlands I am contemplating an arid scheme with some spikies and so on. What I do want is more permanence,  although I guess I'll always want some seasonal plants each year!

My little UK Midlands garden last summer

I have very little room for new trees in my garden but I would like to try the sunny looking Cercis canadensis 'Heart's of Gold'. If its anywhere near as good as its cousin, the purple leaved 'Forest Pansy' then it will be worth the space in a crowded garden. Fortunately the pink flowers are said to be produced before the leaves unfurl each spring. Pink and yellow just do not go together and don't try to tell me they do in a garden!

Cercis canadensis 'Hearts of Gold'

One new shrub I want to try is Sinocalycanthus  'Hartlage Wine' which is a hybrid between the Asian C. sinensis and the North American C. floridus. It is said to be a fast growing plant and certainly the deep red flowers are spectacular with a sweet fragrance. Hilliers have been exhibiting it at Chelsea for a few years but the Plant Finder sadly doesn't list any suppliers. At the last show, a rather exuberant salesman was telling me about its origin but my overstimulated Chelsea  brain didn't absorb the information - sorry!

Sinocalycanthus 'Hartlage Wine'
Although not a new plant I do want to get the golden variegated form of Fatsia japonica called ' Annelise'. This is such a striking plant that I am surprised it is not more widely available. I did grow it at the University though and found it to be slow growing, so maybe its shy to produce at the nursery stage.

Fatsia japonica 'Annelise'
Have any of you grown the new variegated Acanthus 'Whitewater'? It is described as having striking, deeply lobed and cut foliage that is heavily splashed with white. The pale pink flowers have almost red stems creating a stunning effect. Like most acanthus, its said to be fairly tolerant of soils but preferring a lean gravelly soil and not liking disturbance. there are four UK suppliers in the Plant Finder.

Acanthus 'Whitewater' (internet picture - sorry about the quality!)

The last couple of years I have fallen in love with an opulent looking purple Gladiolus, exhibited at Chelsea by Pheasant Acre Plants and called 'Purple Flora'. (Sadly no website) But gladiolus are such stiff unrelenting plants - how can I use them in the garden? Ideas please!

Gladiolus 'Purple Flora'
I have an increasing affection for Crocosmias and must try to source some good cultivars. Last summer I particularly coveted a cultivar called 'Carmin Brilliant' in Tim and Jenny's beautiful little exotic garden is West Bridgford. Its open under the National Garden Scheme later in the year and well worth a visit. Details of opening.  According to the Plant Finder, this crocosmia is widely available.

Crocosmia 'Carmin Brilliant'

I have ordered a few seeds, amongst which is Ricinus 'New Zealand Purple' which is probably one of the fastest growing purple leaved plants available and undoubtedly the best castor oil plant. This is one of the annuals I MUST have. From seed sown in March it will make a 2m (6ft) tower of lush deep purple foliage with a wonderful metallic lustre. So exuberant!

Ricinus 'New Zealand Purple'

Reviewing this, it does seem a rather odd list, although there is a tree, two shrubs, an herbaceous perennial, two bulbs and an annual. Apart from the sugary-looking acanthus, they could actually all be planted together in a small border. 

Anyone who has heard my talks on 'Designing Small Gardens' or read my recent book will know that I recommend keeping a 'Plants Want' list for times such as this. But do you really think I take my own advise? Never!  I tend to be more of an impulse purchase gardener. I fall in love with plants, buy them and then decide how to fit them together. So maybe I'll add to this list when I've made a few nursery trips this spring and returned with a car full of new purchases ready for planting!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Serendipity seedling

I haven't exactly spent the last few days sitting in the sun! My return to the UK is always  a mix of catching up with friends, tidying my neglected garden, doing jobs and shopping. After six months away the cupboards are bare but the autumn leaves are still blowing around the garden!

I had contemplated a trip to Anglesey Abbey to the winter gardens  but opted for a quick visit to the University campus to see what was in bloom there. A few nice winter pictures in Sunday's sunshine and one very pleasant surprise. Amongst a group of Helleborus orientalis that I planted six years ago, I spotted a plant with very striking black flowers and  chocolate foliage. I guess its a chance seedling as I've never seen it before and it was just a small plant tucked close to one of the big clumps. I'm not a hellebore expert by any means and so have no idea whether this is in any way unique - I doubt it is, but it was a pleasant surprise! The true H. orientalis comes from Greece and Turkey and has greenish white flowers. Most of those available nowadays are actually hybrids with other species. Presumably dark colourings are recessive traits so just appear occasionally - somebody enlighten me?

The seedling that caught my eye

Pink and white Helleborus hybrids from which the black one presumably came.
I am always interested to see new developments on the University campus but sad to see how they sometimes impact on the landscape. It was a battle I often fought over the fourteen years I was there and rarely won. Buildings trump landscape time and time again! My latest shock was seeing the new hotel being built at the back of the Conference Centre. Although set in a hollow, it is horribly dominant at the back of the Millennium Garden, a monstrous focal point at the end of the main vista. I seem to recall being told that fifty or so trees were felled to accommodate it. One wonders whether the architect was even aware of the garden when he designed it. Looks like some new tree planting is needed! Enough said!

Millennium Garden with new development today

Millennium Garden prior to new building

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Plumbing and prose

Well folks - those of you that  normally just look at my pictures will have to read this one although there might be a photo at the end to keep you going! After six months in the sun of Palm Springs, my return to the UK seems like a trip to Siberia, although friends tell me its mild and spring is on its way! After the palm trees, succulents and bougainvillea baking in the desert heat, the bare branches, muddy  lawns and few scant daffodils here seem a very Dickensian welcome.

Its amazing how much one forgets after being away six months. The coffee maker wouldn't work and kept flashing a red light. Took me several attempts to remember the correct settings. And my backup hard drive - where had I hidden it? Fortunately a friend reminded me that I had lodged it with him for safe keeping. With some 15,000 pictures now, I cannot risk losing them to theft, fire or earthquake! And as I hung my new pair of grey jeans bought in the USA in the wardrobe, I found I already had a pair - don't tell my partner! The house was generally as I had left it with a few failed light bulbs and six months of dust! The houseplants were all given away last autumn, so its bare and lifeless. Must get some new ones! The sweet pea air freshener did not manage to persuade me it was summer.

Back in the USA we have often cursed American plumbing which doesn't seem to have moved on from the days of Thomas Crapper. (19C inventor of the flush toilet - yes - true!) One of the toilet cisterns in our condo has the annoying habit of continuously filling after flushing, requiring the lid to be lifted and the offending flap of flimsy plastic to be adjusted. After two very disturbing floods this was a matter of distinct concern! Be patient - I'm getting to the point - so as you can imagine, I was glad to leave this problem behind. But the plumbing gremlins have followed me -  our modern, close coupled, compact, dual flush toilet here in the UK has developed the same problem! Plumber's due Monday!

My little garden has survived! After last year's devastation I am relieved to find my new Phormiums looking quite chirpy. The Clianthus, Carpenteria and Abutilon vitifolium that  I planted last year look distinctly healthy. Even the Cordyline 'Pink Stripe', which I so love, has survived but that does look a little razzled as does Astelia 'Silver Spear'.  Once again Heucheras, of which I have quite a few, have come through unscathed with their brilliant crinkly leaves. My Paulownia in the back garden reached to nearly 5m last summer (I hard prune to about 2m) and it now stands gaunt and stark like a giant hatstand. It will need pruning soon. The eucalyptus in the front garden has reached the telephone wires and so I think will have to go this spring. It was temporary planting five years ago when a birch I had previously planted died and it somehow stayed.

Late last summer I bought a plant of the new chocolate leaved  Ceanothus 'Tuxedo' but that has died. Pity - it looked promising.  There are also quite a few other pots with dead skeletons and no labels, so I can't mourn their loss.  I ventured into the loft last night to retrieve a large pot of Colocasia 'Black Magic' which I particularly wanted to keep but the tuber was just a dead shell. I have sometimes wished I had kept the labels of all the plants I have grown and lost (or should I say killed?) So often gardeners will say 'Yes - I've grown that but lost it!' What a trip down memory lane to revisit the labels but I guess I'm getting maudlin!

This morning I went for a run to lift my spirits - that was a mistake! My run passed the inevitable roadworks, a forest of 'For Sale' signs and the desperation of empty, boarded up shops. The Caribbean restaurant that failed last year has a sign saying 'new ownership' - guess what its going to be a Caribbean restaurant!  As I ran from shops, through housing to the countryside, my mood was not lifted by the bare lifeless hedges speckled with windblown litter and orphaned traffic cones. In a 50 minute run I passed a few clumps of tiny 'Tete a Tete' narcissus and a rather fine winter Viburnum probably a V. bodnantense hybrid but little else of horticultural interest. I do wonder why UK gardeners don't make more use of the wonderful winter shrubs available. Check out my Bloomers posting on these if you didn't read it.

This afternoon has brightened a bit - some sunshine but particularly with the company of other gardeners. Today was the spring meeting of the local National Garden Scheme openers - those who open their gardens for charity. Coffee and home-made cakes plus friends and plenty of chatter about plants and gardens was bound to improve the mood! Now today I was a bit of a gate-crasher, as I am not actually an opener any more. (I  used to be when we opened the University gardens.) But having offered to help the local NGS I was kindly invited and it was good to see some old friends.

The event was held in the tea room at Felley Priory. These beautiful gardens are open to the public and well worth a visit particularly in summer when the herbaceous borders are at their peak. The picture above wasn't taken today but this traditional topiary was just as striking in the low winter sunshine! So as you can see I'm a cheap date - coffee and cakes plus chatter and I'm a happy guy again!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

En route update

Reached San Francisco last night after a tedious four hour delay at Palm Springs airport. United and Continental had merged at the weekend and nobody thought to tell the computer systems - it was chaos! The bonus was free baggage and a free gin and tonic on the flight as the card systems weren't working! Sadly arrived too late for planned dinner with friends but consoled myself with a trip to Roccos in Folsom Street - a wonder Italian/American diner. With typical USA hospitality, they produced, at my request, Saltibocca alla Romana which I had eaten there before but wasn't on last night's menu. Wonderful!

This morning I took a very chilly run up Market Street spending more time freezing at the stoplights than running but it gave me a great appetite for breakfast at La Boulange, a wonderful French style bakery in the Hayes Valley district. Fresh baked croissant with ham and scrambled egg plus a side of fresh fruit. Coffee is served in a large bowl - needs two hands!

San Francisco is a beautiful city with a mild maritime climate, changing only a little from winter to summer - never very hot or very cold! The streets are filled with the most amazing range of trees all planted by Friends of the Urban Forest - a largely voluntary organisation. Where else would you find, Magnolia, Ficus, Arbutus, Callistemon, Pittosporum, Eucalyptus, Ceanothus, Cordyline, Phoenix, Photinia, Persea, (avocado) Metrosideros and a host of others all growing in the sidewalks? It's like a citywide botanic garden! But more about that after a future visit. But first the tedious flight back to the UK later this afternoon!

Crossing the Pond

Well folks I'm off to return to the UK where I understand its thankfully warm and dryish.  The garden here in the USA is tucked up for the summer, climbers  pruned, yard vacuumed, feeding complete and irrigation checked and operating!  A brief stopover in San Francisco overnight and then fly back to the UK Thursday so maybe not much from me for a while! But what will I find when I return to the UK? What will have survived and what died? I did plant some spring bulbs before leaving last autumn so hopefully some colour soon!

Bye bye mountains, palms, sunshine and sadly Philip who I won't see for probably five months! (Philip has a job here so is now a permanent resident but annoyingly I am not allowed to stay - but don't start me on the whole minefield of the American law and gay marriage - at least the UK has that sorted or has it?)

Philip - he doesn't always look like this - just a Disney pic from last week!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gardens at the Huntington

This last week in California has been rather hectic compared to my previous quiet five months. As well as my trip to Disney I was also able to visit the Huntington Library. This should have happened three weeks ago, but the good friend Jim who offered to drive had been unwell so it had to be rescheduled and ended up in this last crowded week. The Huntington Library is situated just outside Los Angeles and includes, inevitably a collection of rare books, some major art works and the reason for our visit, 120 acres of beautiful gardens. The original house and gardens were developed from around 1902 by the businessman Henry Edwards Huntington. Check their website here.

The Chinese Garden

Prunus tomentosa 'Manchu Cherry' in the Chinese Garden
Jasminum nudiflorum (or is this humile?) growing as a trailing waterside plant - I like this!

It is difficult to compare this garden to others but to give UK gardeners some idea, it is half the size of Wisley gardens and contains 15 different themed areas, some of which are quite extensive such as the huge Chinese garden which is an ongoing project. There is also a rose garden, jungle garden, Shakespeare garden, Australian Garden, a vast Conservatory, lily ponds and a desert garden.  The Japanese garden was closed for restoration. The climate is subtropical to Mediterranean and enables the growing of a huge range of plants from Camellias and roses through to tender exotics, cacti and succulents. I think this is a Zone 10b garden, (please correct me if I'm wrong!) although it does experience some light frost and we discovered patio heaters positioned near some tender plants.

Anemones in the flower garden

Kniphofia rooperi - what a cracker!
Some discussion on this! Sean from  HTUK suggests Chamaedorea seifrizii but Lee says C. microspadix. Anyone adjudicate?

Sonchus acaulis - a wonderful relative of the sowthistle from the Canary Isles - grows to 1.9m (6ft)

I was so taken with the patterns in this palm crown that I forgot to check the label!
Justicia leonardii

Gas heater over Euphorbia millii

Those of you that read my recent blog on the local gardens tour will know that I have reservations about desert landscape which can be rather too minimalist and bland for my taste. However I think I can genuinely say that I am now a firm convert! This desert garden was planted on a scale like nothing I have ever seen in my 45 years gardening. As well as the strong shapes we are all familiar with in desert landscapes, this just sparkled with electric colour! Jim who is an artist rather than a gardener was equally entranced but saw it all as painting opportunities -  shapes,  colour, and dramatic shadows in the afternoon sunshine. This is reputed to be one of the most extensive and best desert gardens in the world.

Desert garden - just one view

Puya venusta and others - just one of many beautiful plant groupings
Another general view

Aloe berhana
Opuntia microdasys
Aloe excelsa - with just a glimpse of a pretty little red crested bird in the crown

Agave in flower
Dracaena draco - the Canary Island dragon tree

Echinocactus grusonii en masse

Kalanchoe lucilae

Lampranthus - not sure of species or cultivar - sorry!

Aeonium arboreum 'Atropurpurea' in the late afternoon sunshine
This wonderful plant collection was all labelled but the afternoon was slightly marred when I was chastised but a young member of staff for leaving the footpaths to check a label! I was annoyed and subsequently emailed the Curator to comment on this. Not only did I receive a reply from the Curator but also an apology from the man involved who has offered to show me round the next time I visit! Now that's a response!

Camellia 'Elizabeth de Bay' - a few late blooms but most camellias were over.
The Huntington is only open in the afternoon and suddenly our time had gone. with a brief look at the camellias which were fading, we returned to the car realising that we had totally forgotten to look at Gainsborough's 'The Blue Boy', the one painting that Jim had wanted to see - such is the magic of good gardens and spectacular plants!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


No - not the rather sinister low slung cars with darkened windows but the beautiful and fascinating humming birds! I have to admit I'm not much of a bird person. I used to have a secretary who would phone me to tell me there was greater spotted what-not in the tree outside but I could never see what had drawn her interest away from my typing. However humming birds are fascinating!

Anna's Humming Bird - picture from Wikipedia
Humming birds are so common here in Palm Springs but even after nearly ten years of watching them, I still find myself fascinated! These tiny creatures are fearless and will fly inches from my face as they zip across my yard. They are so fast that they have few predators. One of the common species is Anna's Hummingbird, particularly prevalent in California and not normally migratory, so they are here throughout the winter. They are however particularly territorial and fiercely aggressive if another male invades their feeding space. Suddenly there is a flurry as the two tiny 'fighter pilots' spin around establishing their space. Our 'own' resident hummer is named 'Stritz' as it likes to sit on the leaves of the Strelitzia while I have lunch. Yes - we have named it and I do talk to it!

'Stritz' in our yard - the plant is Calliandra haematocephala

Humming birds feed primarily on nectar with some insects and spiders for protein. In order to maintain their high rate of metabolism, they have to consume the equivalent of their own body weight in nectar each day so they have a strong work ethic! Humming birds have no sense of smell so they are attracted to plants with highly coloured flowers. Red is often quoted as the key colour but any colourful flowers will usually attract them. In our yard they feed on the Lanatana, Hibiscus, Abutilon, Bougainvillea, Podranea and Caliandra. We also attract them with a feeder which is filled with red sugar solution.They generally hover to feed using their long tongue to collect nectar although they will perch too. Occasionally with large flowers, like the trumpets on Hibiscus, they will puncture the petals from the outside to get easy access to the nectaries near the centre of the flowers.

Our feeding station with the most unusual situation of two humming birds feeding at the same time.

The last two springs we had a hummingbird nests, the first year in our grapefruit tree in the small yard and last spring on a very thin and precarious  bougainvillea shoot. The nests are about the size of an egg cup and the eggs no bigger then a small pea. One or two fledglings usually hatch. Click this link to go to a short Flickr video of our 'babies' last year.  This year - no nest or at least we haven't found one yet!

Humming Bird nest - again courtesy of Wikipedia