End of month view – July 2017


Every month, for a day or two leading up to making this regular posting, I muse on what I am going to say. Mostly I am thinking about the garden overall, rather than about specific plants, but overall is the sum total of what key plants are doing, so there’s overlap.
This month I had formed a strong impression that the earlier stuff was all but over, a little earlier than usual because of the hot weather, but the later stuff was perhaps a little behind because the ground had become so dry.
So I took this picture from our bedroom window and compared it with the same view from a year ago. Virtually identical. Seems like my June gap comes in July, though It’s not too pronounced. A little more effort to get dahlias and fuchsias going strongly earlier and I will have cracked it.


The viewpoint I have used back towards the house has been all but closed off by the Schefflera and Pittosporum at the bottom of the picture. I put the camera on a monopod and held it aloft as high as possible, taking the picture with a cable release.


I used the same technique for this shot. The polytunnel and the camellias and Magnolia immediately behind it are in the far corner of our patch. Last year I had a pink dahlia amongst the oranges and reds behind Herman the Head. This year I put it elsewhere but planted out the pink hydrangea, so there’s the same clash. I thought it would be over by now, at least that’s my excuse.


This is probably my favourite bit at the moment. Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’, with a Shasta daisy behind it, which always flops. The taller Helenium to the right is ‘Chipperfield Orange’. I have Mina lobata growing up the metal obelisk, it can sprawl over the Helenium and keep the flowering going into the autumn.


I don’t often mention the front, but we have just for all out vulgarity with bedding in pots, tempered with several Eucomis and Agaves montana and parryi which stay out all year round. So much crap is talked about bad taste in gardening, a few years bag Dahlias were the epitome of vulgarity, now they’re the height of fashion. I can’t be bothered with it. Bright colours are uplifting, the end.


Six on Saturday – 29/7/2017

I am very much enjoying this weekly glimpse into other people’s gardens. This week I have included one item that is not a flower or plant, trying to put myself in the position of visiting a garden open for the NGS and wanting to look at everything. Don’t worry, it’s not my shed; if I opened my garden I’d padlock that! Even so, compared to pictures of flowers, it feels relatively exposing.

Hydrangea ‘Izu-no-hana’. The bloom on the left is growing in the ground which is the acid side of neutral. Most of our hydrangeas flower blue. The bloom on the right is on a plant in a pot. I haven’t checked but I would expect the compost to be much more acidic than the soil. Hydrangeas flower blue in acid soil because at low pH aluminium is available to the plant. In a soil-less potting compost there is no aluminium to be available, no matter how acid. So it flowers pink. Easy from softwood cuttings.


I don’t know what the hell it thinks it’s doing but I have leaves and a flower on Cyclamen hederifolium. Hopefully this will seed about with no help from me.

Gladiolus papillio ‘Ruby’. For me the ordinary Gladiolus papillio spreads everywhere but almost never flowers. This beauty has stayed as a clump and flowers every year at the same time as Agapanthus. I have collected seed and grown them, but not yet to flowering size, so I don’t know if it comes true.

Dahlia. This is a very lovely dahlia. Its flowers are the clearest red, with good stems for picking. I like it very much. BUT it is still not the one I ordered, which was a collarette called Chimborazo, of a different level of flamboyance.

Fuchsia ‘Annie Geurts’. Of all the fuchsias we grow I think this is the weirdest. It doesn’t have a lot of vigour and I have struggled to keep it going and to propagate it. I’d hate to lose it, as far as I know there are no nurseries in this country offering it.

A departure from pictures of flowers, my mist system. I set this up three years ago because I found myself out of a job and in possession of several hundred unrooted camellia cuttings; like you do. For a while I entertained the idea of producing camellias for sale and while I haven’t entirely given up on the idea, I have reined in my ambitions greatly.
It has three mist nozzles running off the mains: fortunately our water is pretty soft. It is controlled by an Access mist and wean unit with wet leaf which cost £175. The pipework, nozzles, solenoid valve, sand bed and undersoil heating cable were on top of that. It’s a lot, but I spend much more on camera gear and use it less. I have temporarily blocked one nozzle and screened the mist, so I have a dry area with heating for seeds. Under the mist at present are Fuchsias, Salvias, Impatiens, Osteospermum, Dahlia, Enkianthus, Rhododendron ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’ and 30 sorts of Camellias.

Obviously for much of that, a mist unit is overkill, but I have it so I use it. Soft subjects like Fuchsias and Salvias root in a couple of weeks, the camellias can take six months. I strike almost everything in half-tray sized twenty cell modular thingies. It makes it easier to remove a well rooted plant without disturbing the rest.


The whole 10′ x 6′ prop house, and why growing camellias lost its appeal, 3 inches tall in 2 years.

You can think of that last item as an homage to ThePropagator, whose meme this is. I’m off to check out his six for this Saturday and links to a number of other contributions.


Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’


Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ was discovered as a seedling growing in the Sahin trial grounds in Zeeland, Holland. It was selected in 1996 for its long flowering season.

For me it starts flowering around mid July and has a main flowering period of four to six weeks, then produces a trickle of blooms into the autumn. It is about 90cm tall, entirely self supporting and compared to several other Helenium varieties I have grown, is slug resistant. It tolerates but doesn’t like, drought.

The colour is yellow overlaid with reddish orange, the base and tips of the petals remaining yellow. The prominenet central cone is dark brown, made paler as the florets open from the edge in towards the middle.

All that said, I still haven’t got to the main reason why I have such high regard for it as a garden plant, which is that it is by far and away the most popular plant in my garden with bees, butterflies, hoverflies and oddly, crickets. On a sunny day, there will be more many insects on my quite large clump as in the rest of the garden put together.

Both the individual flowers and the whole clump demand a photographers attention and having just purchased a new telephoto lens, I have been snapping away.

Six on Saturday – 22/7/2014

It’s the height of summer, there are flowers everywhere. Come winter, it’ll be hard to keep this meme going as there’ll be so much less going on. At least there’ll be the foliage plants to fall back on.

When I worked on a nursery customers would come in wanting to know what a plant they’d seen somewhere was. They would describe the flowers, perhaps show you a picture taken on their phone. You’d ask what the leaves were like and they wouldn’t have a clue.

My six this week are all primarily grown for their foliage. They are all providing stirling service at this time of year as focal points, background or ground cover. They are all as it happens, antipodeans. They deserve better than to be overlooked.

One. Ozothamnus hookeri. A neat, compact bush that has reached around 75cm height and width with us, though this one is a bit less than that. It is native to alpine and sub alpine areas in Australia and Tasmania and is tolerant of quite wet ground. It needs to be grown in full sun to stay compact. The stems are less than 1mm in diameter, with the leaves tightly pressed to them. Tiny dull white flowers are produced at the shoot tips in mid summer, strongly honey scented though not, as far as I have observed, attractive to insects.
There is a variety of Ozothamnus called ‘Sussex Silver’ which is sometimes listed as a variety of O. hookeri, which has much stouter stems and grows much more vigorously. It may have O. hookeri in its parentage but is a very different and IMO inferior plant.


Two. Astelia chathamica. For many years this was sold as Astelia ‘Silver Spear’, though the RHS Plantfinder always gave that as synonymous with Astelia chathamica. It comes from the Chatham Islands, which are east of New Zealand at the same latitude as central South Island. Here in Cornwall I have never had any concerns about its hardiness. Mine has always been in an open position, getting full sun for most of the day, though it is said to prefer light shade and to be one of the few silver leaved plants happy to grow in such situations. In New Zealand Astelia species seem usually to grow in shade, on the forest floor or as epiphytes, but the light levels out there are much higher than here. For me its key merits are that it has grown to about 1m in height and stopped, and is as bright and silvery after twenty years or more as it was when planted. Compared to Phormiums, those are real positives.


Three. Blechnum penna-marina. This small, spreading fern is native to South America, Australia and New Zealand. As far as I know the forms usually grown in the UK are from New Zealand. In my garden it is growing in shade and spreads at a moderate rate of around 20cm a year. It makes a very dense carpet and smothers weeds effectively. The neat evergreen foliage is attractive all year but especially when making new growth in spring, the new leaves being held upright and having a reddish-bronze colour. I have had sporelings spring up away from the main clump very occasionally but the usual method of propagation would be by dividing the clump. I haven’t always found it easy to re-establish.


Four. Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Elizabeth’. I remember when this was introduced that the suppliers made much of it being a hardy selection. With ever milder winters that is less relevant than it was in the south, but perhaps means it would be a good choice to try in colder areas of the country. One of the features of the variety was that it acquired strong pink tones in cold winter weather, an effect that has been barely noticeable on my plant for most of the past decade or so. The leaves are quite large, with a bold white margin, the habit is upright and quite narrow, to an eventual height of 5m or so. The dark purple flowers are strongly fragrant, though hardly showy. Most evergreens have dark foliage; it is the lightness of this that is its best attribute.


Pittosporum Elizabeth-2

Five. Muhlenbeckia astonii. A divaricating coastal shrub from New Zealand which emphatically qualifies as interesting rather than showy as a garden plant. Very slender zig-zag stems, tiny leaves and when it produces them, transparent flowers about 5mm across; what’s not to love. It’ll be either male or female, one day I shall examine its bits with a hand lens to try and determine which.


Muehlenbeckia astonii-2

Six. Chionochloa rubra. I was astonished to find pictures of this plant that I took in 2000, when it was not much smaller than it is now. I grew it from seed that I purloined from a well known garden, presumably quite a few years earlier still. The tallest of the very slender leaves on my plant have now reached 1.8m in height, with the flower spikes emerging rather lower and not adding much to the effect. There is very little build up of dead leaves in the clump, so maintenance is essentially zero. I have managed to raise some seedlings from it, but many sowings have come to nothing. It has been used to great effect as an accent plant by Keith Wiley at both The Garden House and Wildside. With hindsight, I’d have planted it further away from the path which it now blocks.


So that’s this Saturday’s contribution. Check out meme host ThePropagator for more of the same, or more of the different. See you next week.

Six on Saturday – 15-7-2017

One. So much in flower, picking six becomes difficult. OK, a bit of lumping together: Dahlias, I grow a few, but then again…


Such flamboyance, such joie de vivre. Dahlias, especially en masse, have an unrivalled capacity for putting smiles on peoples faces, even mine. Some I leave in, some I lift, then put back into any available space.

Two. By way of contrast, I collected seed from my plant of Polygonatum mengzense f. tonkinensis HWJ573 many weeks ago and sowed it in a pot. They’re coming up. I feel quite unreasonably pleased with myself. I should dig out a picture and show you what a wonderful plant it is, but I’m not going to. You’ll have to make do with 2mm high seedlings.


Three. I have many favourite flowers, pretty much as they open each year they take on that mantle for a few days. Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ retains the title for a few weeks every year, such is its quality. It flowers for ages, it’s a good warm colour, the bees and butterflies like it more than anything else I grow, the slugs go for it less than my other Heleniums. It’s also very photogenic.


Four. It’s time I included a Fuchsia. Don’t think I have in earlier posts. This is ‘Delta’s Sarah’, which is hardy enough for the top growth to survive most winters here such that it can get quite big. I’m giving it a little support by tying it to an archway. It opens lilac-blue and turns pink.


Five. Our next door neighbour is very elderly and we manage his front garden as an extension of our own. A few years back we came by a very poor specimen of Hydrangea paniculata with just one spindly stem about 3 feet tall. We planted it in his garden and took a few inches off the top of it, then pruned the subsequent shoots back to a couple of buds each winter. Now It’s a nice little standard that is just the right height to show over the hedge. I don’t know which of the many varieties of H. paniculata it is.


Six. Another hydrangea, but very different. This is H. serrata ‘Fuji-no-taki’. It is very small, still only 18 inches high and wide at most, with masses of greenish white very double flowers that pretty much cover the bush. It always looks worse in close up photos than in the flesh, the nibblings are easily overlooked in the garden. It gets very little direct sun where it is, which seems to suit it.


So there you have it, another six for ThePropagator’s fine Six on Saturday meme. Check out his and get links to more on his blog.

I’m going to relent and give you a picture of the Polygonatum after all. It still has berries on it; they’ve been there since last autumn, and I picked off quite a few for seed. The newly emerging shoots are superb and it doesn’t seem to get attacked by either slugs or sawflies. I can definitely find room for more.


The modern world.

On 14 June I was down at Glendurgan Garden and saw a plant which I didn’t recognise and which didn’t have a label. I photographed it and posted a tweet asking Glendurgan what it was. They came back with Aristea major as a name. I Googled that, found a seed supplier who had it and placed an order. A day or two later the seeds arrived and I sowed them on 18 June.


Yesterday I was cleaning up my propagation unit and was disturbed to find critters burrowing in the sand bed. I sifted them out, cleaned them up a bit and took a close up photo which I tweeted to the RHS entomologist for an ID and advice.
He replied and copied it to a Dipterist (Fly expert) at the Natural History Museum.


Now, I’m clutching at the last few hours I have left of being 64 and I find this stuff absolutely bloody amazing. When I was young I’d have gone to whatever books I had and leafed through them hoping to find a picture of the Aristea, and almost certainly there wouldn’t have been one. Then I’d have given up. I might have taken a picture, and when I’d finished the film and got it developed, may have shown it to someone else who might know. In the extremely unlikely event that I’d put a name to it, what then? Perhaps I’d have sent off stamped addressed envelopes to get catalogues from Thompson and Morgan or Chilterns. Maybe they’d have listed it, probably not.

I’m not sure I’d have been able to get anywhere at all with the fly larvae. The idea that within hours I could get information from the chief entomologist of the RHS and an expert from the Natural History Museum would have been plain ridiculous.

A few years ago I wanted information on pruning apples as spindle trees. I found what I wanted eventually, on a YouTube video from an American University. Top man, demonstrating a technique he’d helped develop.

This is the modern world. I am old enough to remember when none of this was possible and I am all too aware that there are a great many younger people around who have never known anything else and for whom it is all normal, even mundane. To me it is quite extraordinary and sometimes scary, in that it is alien and a struggle to get my head around. There are many parts of it which I just don’t do.

In September I’m going to start helping out at the school in the village, youngsters between four and eleven. A neighbour with kids there asked if I’d help with their garden club. Some of the four year olds will know their way around parts of this new world better than I do. Heaven knows what the older ones will make of the old fossil. I can’t wait, I’m going to learn so much.

On not digging.

In a few days time I shall be 65. Digging is either good exercise or hard work, depending on your perspective. Mine is that it is hard work and getting harder, so it seems to me that if I can get results as good without digging as with, why would I dig.

Like many people, my no-dig guru of choice is Charles Dowding, who has been promoting no-dig vegetable growing for many years and has spoken, written and blogged about his techniques at great length. I have read some of his stuff, he is not overly prescriptive about his techniques, saying that people must tailor them to their own circumstances. This I have done in the much shorter length of time I have used the no-dig approach. That length of time is in fact less than two seasons and I am very aware that it is early days and I have much to learn.

I tend to think of no-dig as a method, not a philosophy. I am doing it because it is giving me the results I want with an input that I can manage and hopefully will be able to manage for many more years to come. Part of that longer view is that my soil is being kept in good shape, but I primarily see that as a means to an end; sustained production; not an end in itself. If soil health were the end, I would have a wild flower meadow or woodland, neither of which are permitted under allotment rules.

So much for the backdrop. At a practical level, my method is very simple. I have a standard sized allotment which I have divided up into beds about 4 feet wide, separated by paths about 18 inches wide. The beds are marked only by canes at the ends of the paths, there is no structure, no timber edging, no raised beds, no path surfacing. I walk on and work from the paths and avoid stepping onto the beds as far as I possibly can, especially when the soil is wet.

In the autumn I spread a layer of compost over all the unoccupied beds, aiming for 1-2 inches depth of material. In the spring I either sow or plant into the beds, usually in rows along the length of the beds. I have had very much better results with growing seedlings in modules or pots and planting them out than with direct sowing. The only things sown directly in 2017 were parsnips and peas. I even did one variety of peas in pots and will likely do more next year.

I tried last year to follow my early crops; peas and potatoes, with later ones; spinach, chard and brassicas. It wasn’t a great success in that the late crops didn’t make enough growth by the winter to be usable or to stand well against winter weather. I’m trying a few different things this year but expect to have more empty ground than last year.  Where there are growing crops I cannot apply a compost mulch in autumn, so I have been putting it on as soon as the ground is cleared in spring. Sometimes there is a period of a few weeks before I want to plant an area, sometimes not. Rather than planting through the compost layer I have used a fork to work it into the top few inches of the bed, pretty much in lieu of worm activity.

Where I have had brassicas growing, the ground seems to become far more compacted than elsewhere. In my four year crop rotation I have potatoes following brassicas and under traditional cultivation the ground would be heavily manured for them. Other than pulling up the previous crop I haven’t disturbed the ground but have planted the potatoes and then covered the bed with 3-4 inches of compost. I don’t think this has worked well; the potatoes have not grown as well as I would have liked. Next spring I will disturb the ground with a fork but not turn it over, then mulch, working some of it into the top few inches.
I have read that brassicas don’t support the mycorrhizal fungi  that most other veg do, so digging after brassicas will not be destroying them.

I generate as much compost as I can, taking material from the allotment, my garden, the kitchen and anywhere else I can. Practically all of it goes through a shredder before going on the heap. I have three heaps and when one is finished I turn the newest one into the space and start again. The new material always goes into the middle bay and is then turned over into an outer bay when one is emptied. I am not much bothered how long it has been composting, it makes no difference to its effectiveness as a protective layer on the soil and younger material probably retains more of its nutrient content. Sometimes there can be a preponderance of dead leaves or shredded woody material and I suspect that there is some nitrogen lockup in the areas where this ends up, but I try to mix it up when I turn the heap so it hasn’t been a major issue.

I have on occasion spread soft shreddings and grass clippings directly onto the ground. The impression I have is that it provokes something of a feeding frenzy in the soil fauna, particularly the bigger members like worms, and gets incorporated, consumed and broken down very quickly. I would do more but a) I am afraid of encouraging slugs, b) it is material that is mostly available in the growing season when there isn’t much bare ground to spread it on, and c) if I spread it green, it will not be available as compost in the autumn.

In most areas of my plot I would say that the soil structure is excellent. It is easy to plant things and just as easy to pull them, and the weeds, out. Cornwall is a relatively high rainfall area so I think the amount of nutrient loss from leaching is bound to be a bit higher than in lower rainfall areas.
As effective as organic matter may be at retaining nutrients, some will always be in the soil water and available to plant roots. That fraction of the soil’s nutrients must be vulnerable to leaching and will be replaced from the reserve of nutrients that is loosely combined with organic and clay particles in the soil. The rapid passage of water down through my well structured soil will increase the leaching losses, at least when the soil is at field capacity, which it should be in a normal winter.
The consequence of this is that as much as I would like not to have to add nutrients over and above those contained in my compost, I do have to if I am to get maximum yields from heavy feeding crops.

One additional factor is moles. Both my plot and compost heaps are plagued by them. On the assumption that most of the hard work that I am saving myself from is being done by worms, I see moles as serious predators of my workforce. I shall try growing caper spurge next year, to supplement my largely unsuccessful trapping.

So, in summary, no-dig is a method where you put organic matter onto the surface and the “cultivation” is done by the soil fauna working it into the soil profile. The compost should provide all the nutrients required by the crop. Broadly I find it works well, but occasionally I find a small amount of cultivation by myself is required. I also believe that some additional fertilizer is needed to get the best yields.
To some extent I think I am still undoing the damage done by previous years of conventional cultivation but I am pleased with my results so far. There are some indications that while my results are being sustained or improving, others on the site are doing less well.

Time will tell.