Saturday, July 28, 2012


On my recent trip to Tatton I was delighted to get a plant of the variegated Acanthus 'Tasmanian Angel', although I'm not sure if this is the right name as there is a similar plant called 'Whitewater'. I saw it when the nursery was setting up and made sure I was back there at 9.30 on the opening day! I can't tell you much about either but the combination of variegated foliage and pink stemmed, almost albino flowers appeals to me for its novelty value. And yes I'm a sucker for variegated plants! Incidentally, the UK Plant Finder lists 13 nurseries for 'Whitewater' and just three for 'Tasmanian Angel'.  At the moment my plant is small and just showing foliage. I guess that with all that white in the leaf it will need at least partial shade to avoid scorching.

Flowering plant of 'Whitewater'

Fifteeen pounds worth of 'Tasmanian Angel'
Acanthus are persistent herbaceous perennials with architectural foliage and striking flowering stems bearing whitish flowers with purple bracts. The flowers have to be pollinated by  large bees such as bumble bees that are strong enough to open the flowers. The flowers are also spiny as anyone who has tried to use them for flower arranging will know - ouch! The word architectural is doubly relevant, as for centuries the acanthus leaf has been used as a motif in architectural elements such as the classical Corinthian columns. Look up when you next visit an ancient monument with stone pillars!

Corinthian column with acanthus leaves
The two most common species of Acanthus found in gardens are A. mollis which has broad smooth leaves and A. spinosus which has finely cut leaves. Both are good garden plants. They tend to be slow to establish and resent dividing and transplanting but once established are quite persistent. If you dig them up you are quite likely to find them re-growing the next year from remaining root fragments.

Foliage of Acanthus mollis

Acanthus spinosus

I also acquired Acanthus 'Hollard's Gold' early in the year which has young foliage in a shade somewhere between gold and lime green. I find it attractive but when judging recently, a fellow judge thought it was just a chlorotic version of  Acanthus mollis. I'll let my plant establish before I pronounce judgement!

'Hollard's Gold'

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Bloom

During early July, communities throughout the UK, from the smallest villages through to cities,  prepared for some important visits. No it wasn't the Olympic Torch or Her Majesty on her Jubilee tour but the judges from Britain in Bloom and the regionals that lead to them. In my case, I was involved in judging Small Villages and Urban Communities for East Midlands in Bloom. Some people may not be aware of the procedure which involves entering at the regional level and if successful then being promoted to the national Britain in Bloom.

Woops - caught you! One of the volunteers tries to remove a weed without me seeing!
As always, I was amazed at what was achieved by tiny communities, some with only a few hundred inhabitants. In nearly every case there were one or two key enthusiasts who not only encouraged other participants, but often did much of the work themselves. In one case there was a sprightly but elderly lady in her mid-80s, who only complained that there was nobody to help  her barrow the compost around! All the rest she did herself!  In a competition such as this, there are marks in three categories, firstly for horticultural achievement, secondly for environmental responsibility and finally for community participation. We were shown beautiful parks, tiny village greens, flowering meadows, beautiful front gardens, fascinating heritage, some enterprising schools and so much more.

A village front garden

Perennial borders on a village green

Colour borders in a park maintained by volunteers

The stripiest lawns award!

A new wildlife garden created by students on an allotment site.

Wildflower meadow in a city suburb

Murals in a neighbourhood park

Flowers and benches on a city terrace

Amazing plants all in pots at the side of the street

Community allotment

Gardens of a retirement home, maintained mainly by residents
A churchyard being redesignated for wildlife

If I had one criticism of almost all the entries, it was a failure to create the WOW factor with bedding plants. Almost every community had hanging baskets, planters and flower beds but in most cases they were too far apart, insubstantial and lacked any real power. Individual hanging baskets, widely spaced on lamp-posts are simply lost. One community proudly told us of five new flower beds, but they were so small and contained such a mixture of plants that there was really no effect.  The following are examples of hard work that hasn't been effective - rather sad.

Too small to have any effect!

Too many types of plant to be effective.

Old tyres are never attractive!

Bare soil doesn't win points!

Nice new bed but poor choice of planting

Baskets and planters need to be grouped to make the maximum use of colour. Flower beds need to be as large as possible and grouped together in an important area to achieve the wow effect. No need to grow more plants, just group them in bigger blocks of colour. Some good examples to follow including some from other years.

Small bed but well planted and located in key position - excellent!
War memorial garden - maintained by volunteer - great colour!

Effective use of baskets

Two good planters grouped together

Old muck spreader used as giant planter in rural area.
 Nowadays, most ground maintenance is sensitive to the environment and it is sad to hear of occurrences where it is not. In one village, there was an area of magnesian  Limestone meadowland, complete with native orchids. Despite requests over a number of years for this to be allowed to grow and be cut later, the contractors, employed by the parish council insist on close mowing. A few brave orchids were protected by wire netting enclosures and even some of these have been strimmed. So barbaric!

Now whilst this may not all be the pinnacle of horticulture, it does represent a huge number of people involved in growing plants and looking after their environment - its got to be good! Over the two week period we awarded one Silver Gilt and six Silver awards but if you want to know who got what, you'll have to wait until the awards are announced in September!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Best Butt Award and a few flower beds!

I'm just back from some rather damp and cloudy days at the Tatton Park Flower Show. It's a great mix of gardens, flowers and mud and open till Sunday! Yes it was muddy but it is amazing at what has been achieved despite the weather and the RHS have done their best to make the showground clean and accessible. I was there to take part in judging the flowerbed competition which has been part of the Tatton Show for many years. The recession has caused a drop in the numbers but there are still 10 brave local authorities that have managed to find the money and incentive to bring an exhibit to the show - no mean achievement during the doom and gloom of recession and an impossible summer.

Smith and Son - Vaulting Ambition - Gold - but not judged alongside the rest as this was a commercial entry

Although the flower beds need to be realistic and capable of growing on in a park, these are flower beds with a difference and most will tell a story of some sort. This year the brief had requested a theme of Olympic sports and amongst the various beds, we have a long jumper, yachtsman,  two archers, a swimming pool, cyclists, kayaker, surfers and golf (it doesn't become an Olympic sport till 2016 so forward thinking!) Standards are very high and as judges we looked carefully at the quality of plants, the design of the displays, their creativity and the difficulty of achieving the end result. We awarded three gold-medals, three silvergilt's, two silvers and two bronze. Some of the exhibitors showed great initiative such as the huge spreading tree produced by Dumfries and Galloway, constructed with a framework and a huge head of the tiny creeping plant Sagina. The three wheeled bicycle with two cyclists, pedalling away from each other from Lancaster added a touch of fun!

Lancaster City - Way of the Roses - Silver Gilt

Frinton in Bloom - Bullseye - Silver Gilt

Darlington - The Long Jumper - Silver Gilt

Dumfries & Galloway - Scotland Home of Golf - Silver

Partington - Bowman of Bucklow - Gold

The winning flowerbed is 'Surfing Jersey' by the Parish of St Helier, although my own personal favourite is the Olympic Breeze  created by Birmingham City Council. (Judges don't always all agree!) This is just filled with detail and the yacht, jetty and seagulls all 3D carpet bedding. As the yacht flies through the water you can imagine the spray created using white antirhinums, nicotiana and blue and white agapanthus - quite dynamic!

Parish of St Helier - Surfing Jersey - Gold & Best in Show

Birmingham - Olympic Breeze - Gold
Another view of Birmingham
How about this for detail - a tiny tuft of moss in the rock - Birmingham again!
Now you might wonder where The Best Butt Award comes in? Inevitably with the theme of sports, there were various figures in the displays. Some are willow sculptures, one is a 2-D silhouette but most are 3-D figures made from carpet bedding. In creating such figures it is often forgotten that by the time the plants have been added and they have grown, the figure will put on a few inches all the way round and a muscled athlete easily becomes the Michelin man! Inevitably we judges had commented on the quality of the various figures but one commented that the "pole vaulter in the display by Smith and Son had the best butt" - it wasn't me - honestly!

The pole vaulter's derriere! - A Gold Award!

The surfer's butt - he's a big lad!

I was tempted to report this at the judges moderation meeting but resisted the urge as the proceedings were being filmed.  I didn't particularly wish to go down to posterity - pun intended - as the judge who had made a bum joke at moderation!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Nicotiana sylvestris

This year I'm growing  Nicotiana sylvestris in my own garden. Its been a favourite annual for many years and I've often used it in displays I have designed. If you want to try it, you'll find it under its new name 'Only the Lonely'. Now this isn't another case of the botanists trying to trip us up but pure commercialism. If it doesn't sell - give it a new gimmicky name! Its a great plant growing to maybe 1.5m (5ft) and producing long willowy stems with huge star-bursts of white flowers at the top. Fireworks in the flower bed! It come from South America so is not hardy and needs to be sown in spring in a greenhouse or as I did on a warm windowsill. The name sylvestris tells us that it comes from woodlands and is useful as its a bedding plant that can be used in the shade. Its also scented. Am I selling it to you?

One of the particular reasons I like it is because of its height and the value that gives in a planting mix. So many plants are bred now to be dwarf and compact and most nicotianas now are short characterless plants that just provide blobs of colour with no height or grace. See these below - nice colour scheme  but totally lacking in the natural form of nicotiana.

I'm hoping my plants will get to the flowering stage this summer. Last year I was delighted to find plants in a local garden centre but when they flowered, they turned out to be something entirely different, fairly tall and lime green - nice but not what I wanted. This year mine are lush and green and the flower spikes are starting to extend but for some reason, they are one by one dying off - just collapsing at the base. Probably just too wet.

Now if you really want a green nicotiana, don't buy 'Lime Green' or other cultivars but try to find seed of Nicotinana langsdorfii. Fortunately this is another unimproved and graceful species with pretty real green, bell-shaped flowers.

Just found this picture whilst I was looking for the others pictures. Nicotiana glauca, which also comes from South America but seems to be naturalised in various warm climates such as the Canary Isles.  In the picture its growing in a bit of rough ground near my winter home in Palm Springs.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Cornish nurseries

No gardening trip would be complete without visiting a few nurseries and returning home with a car full of plants. With Philip in America I don't have to make excuses for the expenditure! (Hope he doesn't read this!) I love the fact that many of the plants in my garden carry memories, either of the people who generously gave them to me or the places where I bought them.

I resisted the temptation to buy anything in the Hestercombe plant sales area on the way down but did stop at the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery near Lostwithiel. Although having its origins in a simple forestry nursery, it has for many years stocked a wide range of plants including many unusual species. (Would this be the influence of HRH?)It is a little surprising to turn off the main road and follow a very narrow single carriageway between high Cornish hedgerows and then to find a well-stocked and organised plant centre. This has recently been refurbished with a smart new building, car park,  cafe and greenhouse. I resisted buying much as this was the beginning of my week and didn't want plants sitting in the car for too long. However I was delighted to buy a very strong healthy looking plant of Sinocalycanthus raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine'. Regular readers will know of my desire for this plant and you can check back to the earlier 'Sinocalycanthus saga' of trying to obtain it. I also bought  Persicaria 'Golden Arrow' with sharply pointed golden leaves and deep pink flowers and a cerise Geranium called 'Patricia'. Both just right for my pink and yellow border in the front garden (I said I'd never mix those colours!)

My front garden - plenty of gold & purple but not much pink as yet! The golden Persicaria just in the bottom left hand corner.

The new Sinocalycanthus

The day of my visit to Burncoose Nursery was very damp and wet underfoot and maybe it was my mood but I didn't find much that either appealed to me or that I felt would be hardy in the Midlands. Strange - its a big enough nursery with thousands of plants! This nursery has exhibited at many of the major plant shows for many years and the interior of the building is plastered with awards, walls, ceiling - the lot! This is no mean feat, transporting plants all the way from the far end of Cornwall to get to 'mainland' shows  in peak condition. I know  - I did it when we ran Brockings! I did however buy an Ugni molinae 'Flambeau' (renamed from Myrtus) with pretty pink leaves and a delicate green Pittosporum with undulating leaves called 'Wrinkles Blue'. It seems to be the same as one I used to have that made a very fine plant and was hardy for many years. I want to use it to replace the eucalyptus in the front garden that is getting far too big. The previous specimen of this pittosporum made a small tree like an evergreen birch.

Ugni molinae 'Flambeau

Pittosporum 'Wrinkles Blue'
Then the highlight of my nursery visits was to Hardy Exotics just outside Penzance. For exotic plant aficionados this is certainly THE place for a pilgrimage. This is not a  tidy nursery and there is no cafe, toilets, gardens or any other facilities - just loads of plants. Although I say that it doesn't have a garden, it sits within an area absolutely overgrown with lush planting. Clive and Julie who run the nursery are dedicated plants people who have a wide knowledge of exotic plants. They have their own hardiness rating which consists of one to three stars on the labels which gives an indication as to whether these plants grown in Cornwall, are likely to be hardy in tougher areas.

First view of Hardy exotics
One of the sales tunnels

The surrounding landscape
And Gunnera thrives!

The pay point and the Pseudopanax that isn't a Schefflera!
My haul of plants may not be particularly rare but after recent winters I've become a bit cautious so I bought

Arundo donax (I've the lost the variegated one so many times!)
Fatshedera 'Annameike' ( I really want Fatsia 'Annelise' but can't get it)
Impatiens omeiana (fell in love with it at Heligan)
Persicaria filliformis (dark blotches)
Persicaria 'Compton's Form' similar but couldn't decide which to buy!)
Asarum 'Chen-Yi' - nice little ground cover for damp shady spots - no problem this year!
Cortaderia richardii - so much more delicate than the other pampas or is it pampi?

X Fatshedera 'Annameike

After a detailed conversation and dropping a clanger by confusing a Pseudopanax with a Schefflera, I was taken by Clive to his 'private' tunnel.  Amongst the many treasure he showed me was a small batch of Schefflera taiwanense - a plant I particularly wanted to find on this trip and he agreed to sell me one.

My treasured Schefflera taiwanense

Finally having driven through thick fog in the early afternoon, I dropped in to Trevena Cross Nursery. This place is so extensive with a huge range of plants. By this time I was aware not so much that I had spent a small fortune but that there really weren't any gaps in my tiny garden anyway. However I couldn't resist a chunky plant of  Cornus florida 'Rainbow' priced at £9.95. I have admired this plant for a while but resisted at the usual price of £30+. This time I bought it! Great price for a good grafted plant. Not sure how it will thrive in my Nottingham soil but I'll give it a try.

My bargain Cornus 'Rainbow'

Plants like these awaiting planting make a valid summer display
Some have now been squeezed in to my garden but most potted to grow on with the aim of replacing some of the seasonal planting this autumn with permanent. Well - maybe but I do love some annuals....................