Sunday, March 31, 2013

A grass with a reputation

Despite the name of this blog, I don't think I have ever written about pampas - big, bold grasses in the genus Cortaderia - and if I have, I'm sure you guys wouldn't be rude enough to remind me! As a teenager working in the summer holidays on the seaside gardens in Felixstowe, I remember the huge clumps of pampas that thrived there and defied the salt spray from the biting East winds.  I guess I've always liked them and so tended to include them in my landscape schemes, even though many would say they are terribly unfashionable. During my years working in both Reading and Nottingham University, I regularly planted them, to the extent that they could almost be regarded as my 'signature plant'. They were great in that environment, big enough to make a statement, tough enough to withstand student high spirits and looked at their best from autumn, the beginning of the academic year, through much of the winter.  I like pampas! So when I started this blog the idea of pampas as a very English garden plant, contrasted with palms, very significant in my Californian winter home, seemed just right.

Pampas in full autumn glory - possibly 'Sunningdale Silver'
Cortaderia look good with exotics such as these Canna 'Assaut'

Only recently did I discover that pampas had a hidden or maybe not so hidden meaning. Back in the 1960's, which is of course very much pre-internet days, when swinging had an upsurge, it is said that planting a pampas grass in your front garden was an indication to the like-minded that you were open to offers. I didn't know that.  I have to admit that I do have a pampas in my front garden, although it is a rather refined C. richardii and I'm not removing it. I'll plead the 5th!

Cortaderia richardii but not my front garden!

Cortaderia come mainly from South America with a few from New Zealand. They are evergreen grasses. Plants can be male, female or bisexual and this does sometimes affect their habit of growth. Inevitably it will be more apparent in batches grown from seed, rather than named cultivars. A mature specimen of Cortaderia selloana 'Sunningdale Silver' in full plumage at 3m (10ft) tall is a stunning sight. For gardens with limited space, there are compact cultivars, such as 'Pumila' which reaches a more acceptable 1.2m. The cultivar 'Caminea Rendatleri' or 'Pink Feather' is another tall one, but with pink tinted flowers.



Pampas in the heat of Palm Springs - equally successful - tall and short cultivars

The smokey pink of 'Rendatleri'

Some modern cultivars are grown for their foliage. 'Aureolineata', often sold as 'Gold Band' is mainly grown for its striped golden foliage and 'Albolineata', 'Silver Stripe' for its white variegated leaves. Both are good, reasonably compact foliage plants with some flower.

'Gold Band' as a highlight in the hot borders in the Millennium Garden

Close up of foliage of 'Gold Band'

'Silver Stripe' - sorry - couldn't find a better picture and my own plant is still under snow!

Pampas looks good well into the winter as the dramatic seedheads hang on for ages but eventually they become rain sodden, the stems snap and by late winter they are a mess and need tidying up. The ragged, saw-toothed leaves make this a slightly hazardous operation, no doubt leading to the rather drastic tradition of burning out the centre of pampas. This involved setting fire to the dry leaves and stems in the middle of the plant which does effectively clean out the dead material but can't do much good to the live surrounding tissues! Like many tough garden plants, it survives this process, although one cannot recommend it.

Not to be recommended!

Well I'm off for a walk as there's a glimmer of sunshine and besides I want to see who else grows pampas in their front gardens - just curious!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Finally some spring colour

As promised, a tantalising sniff of spring from the RHS Great Plant Fair in London. This is a traditional show held in the RHS Hall in Vincent Square, very much in the format of the old monthly shows, the RHS used to hold. I was there in the role of a judge which is both challenging and a privilege, as we get to see the show in its pristine state without the crowds. Inevitably colour was limited and no doubt some nurseries had struggled to bring together a quality stand in a very cold spring.

When I used to exhibit, I regarded the judges as pernickety and decidedly mean! I never got a Gold Medal myself! Now having been on the other side for a number of years, I like to emphasise how carefully the stands are examined by both the judges and the moderators. Decisions are carefully scrutinised at the moderation meeting, awards challenged and sometimes altered. We do like to give Gold Medals when they are justified but all those who receive them can know that they have truly achieved a standard of excellence. Yesterday our judging panel allocated only one Gold Medal but we also awarded throughout the range giving two Silver Gilts, three Silvers and two Bronze. A good indication that we were carefully analysing the exhibits we were judging.

A well deserved Gold Medal for Eleplants nursery, although the moderators criticised the use of excess leafshine on some of the evergreens. Personally I loved the way the Coprosmas glowed!

Chrysanthemums Direct - a Silver Gilt but can't they think of another way of displaying these lovely blooms?

Jacques Amand - spring blooms in a range of containers
Another pic of Jacques Amand

Plants for Presents exhibited a great range of Citrus plants, many in fruit but the staging in a heap of straw didn't enhance the stand which only achieved a Silver.

A wonderful display of daffodils form RA Scamp presented in a very formal and traditional style - no marks for originality and innovation.

Richard and Sheena Drane brought a collection of cacti. Fortunately I have rarely had to judge cacti as I would find it difficult to be objective, judging a collection of the same plants that have probably been displayed at numerous shows in exactly the same way!

Sea Spring Seeds created a very informative display showing how many salads can be easily grown in small spaces and achieving them a Silver Gilt

Kelnan Plants brought a selection of Restios
Sadly some nurseries did not get good awards and in each case there were valid reasons why they were penalised and they will receive constructive comments to help with the future.

Whilst Heucheras usually get high awards, the judges felt the cultivars on display were limited and drab in colourings, resulting in just a Silver for Heucheraholics

The early Clematis from Floyds just hadn't really made it and Armandii was the only one in flower. The regulations clearly state that marks cannot be given for plants that are not doing what they are grown for. I'm sure the Bronze medal will be a disappointment.

Daisy Roots displayed a collection of dogwoods which simply lacked impact, having no other plants to separate or contrast them. They too only got  a bronze.

And to end on a positive note just a few specific plants that caught my eye! Just my personal selection of plants I'd like to grow. With my overnight bag to carry and a trip across London followed by a train journey, I decided not to purchase!

Limequat - a pretty little citrus - maybe one to try in my California garden

D'Arcy and Everest had a wonderful display of Sempervivums in troughs, many displayed in imaginative ways such as this, achieving them a Silver Gilt
Helleborus 'Burgundy'


Helleborus orientalis 'Blue Lady'

Labelled Helleborus 'Green Corsicus' -  Updated name from Chad - thanks - should be called Helleborus x nigercors 'Green Corsican' a hybrid between H. niger and H. argutifolius

Helleborus 'White Beauty'

Iris 'Rhapsody' - probably a reticulata hybrid

Streptocarpus 'Harlequin Dawn' - inevitably from Dibleys as are the next two


Streptocarpus 'Harlequin Lace'
Streptocarpus 'Denim'



Sunday, March 24, 2013

A taste of summer?

Well - with the snow thickly blanketing much of the UK, it's hardly gardens weather! Snow started falling on Thursday night and has been steadily accumulating since then. In Nottingham, we seem to have at least 15cm (6in) which is not only unusual but quite unseasonable this late. Just before the snow fell, I noticed with dismay that the only flowers I could see in our street were a tiny clump of miniature narcissus and some rather faded artificial blooms in a neighbour's garden! Spring will be late this year. And for those of you reading this in my other home in Palm Springs - DON'T complain about the heat or the wind!

Anyway with all that in mind I thought I might try and cheer us all up with a touch of summer colour from last year. Even that is a bit washed out, as I recall taking so many of these photos dodging between the showers and downpours of summer 2012. Anyway - have a look and dream of summer with me!

Roadside planting that caught my eye for colour and exuberance

Cottage Garden in Barton in Fabis


Chelsea exhibit - totally inappropriate as a real planting but great combination for the theatre of a flower show

Small garden at BBC Gardener's World Show

Hestercombe - one of Gertrude Jekyll's masterpieces and beautifully restored

One of the wonderful streets in the Meadows, Nottingham where the community have transformed drab surroundings

The streamside garden at Dumbleside, open under the NGS and one the best local gardens

Tulips - can't wait! They spell summer for me!

Chelsea flower show garden - understated but beautiful planting

I just loved the shapes and planting  in this garden at the Tatton Flower Show

The White House Garden, Keyworth - again open under the NGS
The Eden Project - a damp day but colourful experience

Dodging the showers again but couldn't miss the Jungle at Heligan

Formality and tradition at Compton Acres

Tregrehan - wonderful plant collection but odd garden and dire weather

Curious garden in the shell of a partly demolished building in Redruth
Tomorrow I am off to London to judge at the RHS Great London Plant Fair. Who knows if there will be anything to judge with this cold spring and whether the intrepid nurserymen will have managed to battle through the snow from rural locations to get to central London. I'll tell you all later in the week!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guilty as charged

OK then - I admit it - I'm a fair weather gardener! Although I love my little garden and it gives me immense pleasure, I do not enjoy working in the cold or the wet. I guess after twenty or more years driving a desk and five winters in California, being back home during the tail end of a long cold winter is a bit of a shock. Each day I have looked outside at my rather miserable little garden, still smothered with soggy autumn leaves and the gaunt skeletons of last years annuals and felt the urge to tidy up. But the weather has rather dampened down that urge and I've placated myself by saying I'll get to it in a few days when my sciatica has eased. Well I've just about lost that excuse, so I'll need to get out there soon! But today with the snow gently falling, there's no way I'm going out there! Just to cheer up a dreary day I'll also post a pic of the garden last summer!

The back garden as it was last August before I escaped to the USA

The same garden now - like a seaside town in winter - all desperately sad and tawdry looking.

As I'm not generally in the UK during the winter, I have not planted much for winter interest despite the fact that I love all those intrepid winter flowering species. I'm ashamed to say that there's not a single flower in my garden at the moment and a limited range of evergreens. On the plus side, despite reports that its been a cold winter, there don't seem to be many losses. A small delicate leaved Pittosporum in a pot has perished completely and my green Arundo donax looks very sad but otherwise most plants are alive. This is however the lowest spot of the year for gardens. The winter has wrecked its damage, autumn leaves have long lost their attraction, ornamental grasses have becomes tangled bundles of stalks and spring flowers are still hiding.

Photinia 'Pink Marble - lovely new pink growths but awful habit

Heuchera 'Blackberry Jam' just looks sad without its summer partner of Hakonochloa 'Allgold'
Same group last summer

Good old reliable Trachycarpus fortunei just goes on growing slowly.

All the Phormiums have survived this winter

Just love the dusky foliage of Bergenia 'Evening Glow' - some gardeners just detest them - no taste!
Euphorbia mellifera - undamaged but looking a bit sad.
Astelia 'Westland' survived the 2011 winter when 'Silver Spear didn't.

So common but I love the sunny disposition of Euonymus 'Emerald 'n Gold'


If only the sun would shine up in the sky and not just in golden foliage!   I guess we'd all have more energy and enthusiasm. I really do want to get out there, tidy up and see what gaps need filling. And then there's the stump of that eucalyptus that I cut down late last summer. It must be removed before it starts to re-grow! I think I shall move over the Cercis 'Hearts of gold' which will leave more room for the Tetrapanax to spread. So much to do and so little inclination at the moment! In a tiny garden like mine, plant losses are still disappointing but are also the opportunity for something new and exciting! A good excuse to go nursery visiting!