This little patch of mine.

Somewhere on this site is a map of my garden, carefully measured and drawn to scale by me a year or two back. Only there is no scale marked on it, so you don’t know how big it is and nor did I. Well, I revisited it and worked out that my back garden is about 500m2. It’s an odd shape, so it doesn’t really look that big, but it is.

High-view.jpg

View from scaffolding at end of April. The bushes behind the tunnel are in the far corner.

Armed with that figure and with the idea in my head that it was a bit bigger than average, I looked online to find out what the average size of UK gardens was. 14m2, according to the HTA. That is exactly the size of my front garden, which I’d dismissed as being too small to include. Add it in and my garden is 37.6 times the average for the country. To put it mildly, I was surprised.

I have no idea what is included in the “average” figure and frankly, it doesn’t much matter. I am privileged to own more than my fair share.

I suppose if the garden consisted of rough grass with a washing pole and a couple of rusting cars I wouldn’t be writing a blog about it. I would also be feeling a bit guilty because I was brought up to believe that with privilege comes responsibility, in this case to put the ground to good use. Obviously, there will be a very wide range of views on what that should mean.

I overheard someone the other day saying you could keep four, or was it five? Alpacas on an acre. I could grow veg, or fruit, wildflowers or coppiced willow, lawn or roses, chickens or rabbits; the list is endless, the notion of good use elusive. A lot of people would take the view that as my land I should be free to do whatever I like with it. We are very adept at justifying what we do, even though we mainly do what we want to do.

Mostly it works out OK in that everybody does something a little different and while one person is conserving rare plants another is benefitting wildlife and yet another providing a valuable amenity, and so on. A garden may contain trees that are visible from and enjoyed by people over a much wider area. A quiet, overgrown garden may be a nesting site for birds frequenting dozens of nearby properties. Even closely mown lawns with no wildflowers can be suitable for burrowing bees and extensive soil fauna. Most categories are not exclusive, it is perfectly possible to tick several boxes.

The only rule I have is that my garden shouldn’t be dull, which is suitably vague. It would be dull to some people, it’s all plants and has no barbecue or hot tub. It’s not much use if you’re a teenager wanting to kick a ball about, there being no lawn. But I think I put my patch of land to good use. I grow a very wide range of plants which in turn support a wide range of insects and birds. I have resident hedgehogs and slow-worms, frogs, toads and newts.

Helenium-13

I’m not fastidious about being tidy, I have natives including bluebells and foxgloves, primroses and welsh poppies. Heleniums, Fuchsias and apple trees are among many non-natives that are popular with bees and butteflies.

Helenium-9

For nearly thirty years, until I retired three years ago, I worked on a nursery, growing plants for a living. The garden was to a degree a trial ground and a collection of stock plants. It never seemed big enough then and even now, in my mid sixties, it is stuffed with different plants of all descriptions. I also have two allotments, adding another 400m2 to the mix.

There will come a time when I am no longer able to cope with it all, which is a situation that quite a few people I know find themselves in. I hope I can then afford to employ a young gardener for at least a few hours a week and give them an opportunity to learn a little more about the profession they have come into. I also hope I can bring myself to let someone else do it.

Six on Saturday – 19/8/2017

Another week has flown by and it’s time for another six. I found myself in the luxurious position of having too many things to include. Hope you like the six that made the cut.

One.
Cyrtanthus elatus ‘Pink Diamond’. Scarborough Lily. A very accomodating bulb that grows well in our north facing conservatory, though I suspect it would flower better given more light. We have the red one too, which I think of as the type of the species, but it is a week or two behind this one.
SOS33

Two.
Amaryllis belladonna. Another South African bulb, but growing outdoors in full sun. One of two forms we have, this one is much earlier flowering and taller. It has solid pink flowers rather than the more common white centred varieties. Slugs seem to go for the emerging buds but leave them alone when they’re up a few inches.
SOS34

Three.
Still in the southern hemisphere but a different continent, Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls’ is from New Zealand. I suppose we planted this years ago. It’s now a self seeder, popping up all over the place. Some get weeded out, some left. After a couple of seasons it gets scruffy and can be removed in the knowledge that there will be numerous replacements. I wonder if there ever was any difference between C. comans and ‘Frosted Curls’ as a variety; after numerous generations from seed I should probably call this Carex comans.
SOS35

Four.
Astilbe ‘Delft Lace’. A couple of years ago we visited Marwood Hill garden to see the Astilbe collection. we went around taking pictures and noting down names. I think this one was bought because it wasn’t yet in flower but had good dark foliage. It’s now flowering after the rest have finished, which extends the season but leaves it looking a bit like it arrived after the party finished.
SOS36
Five.
Polystichum setiferum ‘Plumosum Densum’. The most delicate looking and feathery of ferns, but easy and tough. This year, for the first time, it produced gemmae, baby plantlets on the leaves. I have managed to get a couple going, which is good. Bob Brown says this is his favourite fern. It could be mine too.
SOS37

Six.
Fuchsia ‘Nunthorpe Gem’. I’ve been updating my Fuchsia inventory. Over ninety, plus a few unidentified varieties, of which this was one. I went through all my Fuchsia photos, narrowed it down to nine possibles. Then Sue had a lightbulb moment, came up with a tenth name, which appears to be correct. It’s a very compact hardy variety. Result! Next.
SOS38

Oh, that’s it.

I’m off to check out the links to other sixes from host ThePropagator’s blog at https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/19/six-on-saturday-19-08/

Euphorbia mellifera

There are one or two spots in the garden where it’s a struggle to get anything to grow. One such place is behind a brick retaining wall where I suspect the builders back filled with a load of rubble. Somewhere down the line we planted a Euphorbia mellifera there and it has loved it, growing well but not too well, so it remains compact, at least for a few years.

However, it is beside a path and it does grow over it. Not the most pleasant plant to push past, just snap a leaf and it releases milky, sticky and for some, irritant sap. I cut off the worst branches as and when, then about every three years I cut it back hard.

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Which I just did. Everything except a few small shoots it produced this year. I would expect a flush of growth from the bottom and will probably be removing the longer shoots before the winter. Next year it will be a neat green dome again, but shorter. Got my view back too.

Euphorbia-mellifera-4

There are already new shoots at the base, so there is no risk of it expiring.

Six on Saturday – 12/8/2017

There’s an abundance of bloom in my garden now so I’ve gone with six flowery items.

One.
Agapanthus ‘Windsor Grey’. Our Agapanthus haven’t excelled this year, with less flower spikes lasting for a shorter than usual time. This one is flowering for the first time and I don’t recall planting it. Just one spike which I’ve pictured against my Chionochloa rubra. Any greyness owes more to the weather than the flower; another mizzly day.
Agapanthus-Windsor-Grey

Two.
Dahlias. After a patchy start, the dahlias, of which I have several, are starting to really perform. It’s for strong, vivid colours that I grow them, so I have very few in pale or pastel colours.

Dahlias-3

Clockwise: ‘Red Velvet’, ‘Kalinka’, ‘Karma Chocolate’ and ‘Veritable’

Three.
Hedychium ‘Stephen’. I bought this years ago under the name ‘Filigree’, which is wrong. It may not be the original clone of ‘Stephen’, which can set viable seed and comes more or less true from it. There are few if any plants to rival the ginger lilies for an tropical exotic look and hardy over much of the UK.
Hedychium-Stephen
Four.
Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Because ‘Rozanne’ never stops flowering, it doesn’t get a post display chop, so grows and spreads more than most. It needs to be planted where the growth can be accommodated, over a path or wall perhaps. It is such a good plant and so widely planted that there is sure to be a backlash against it from the style police at some point.
Geranium-Rozanne

Five.
Begonia semperflorens cv. I picked up this double flowered Begonia semperflorens form in the bedding section of a local garden centre. I potted it into a one litre pot and have kept it in the greenhouse where it has flowered continuously for months. I made a bit of an attempt to put a name to it before including it here, without success. I think I like it.
Begonia-cv

Six.
It had to be a Fuchsia to complete the six. I think we have around seventy varieties and I must write a blog about them sometime. This one is ‘Jorma van Eijk’.
Fuchsia-Jorma-van-Eijk

 

So that’s it for another week. I hope you enjoyed them and will check out links to other sixes at ThePropagator, host of this meme. Better still, join in and take a peek into other gardener’s lives each week.

Six on Saturday – 5/8/2017

Dahlias and Japanese anemones are definitely flowers of the second half of summer. I’m impatient for them to start flowering, then depressed when they do.

One.
Dahlia ‘Orange Cushion’. There is not the remotest possibility of this dahlia ever being mistaken for nearly red or nearly yellow. It’s a bang down the middle orange. I’ve had it for several years and leave it in the ground over winter. I sowed some of its seed last year, am keen to see what I get.
Dahlia-Orange-Cushion

Two.
Someone put a fern in last week. Another of those groups of plants that I love, that do well in my conditions and that I have to resist the temptation to buy every time I see one I haven’t got already. Paesia scaberula, Lace Fern, is a New Zealand fern that a few years ago would have been regarded as borderline hardy even here in Cornwall. I’ve had no such concerns for the last few years, it’s in danger of matching the description in my NZ ferns book of “forming dense masses to the exclusion of other vegetation”. It’s 15-18 inches tall with lacy fronds and thin wiry stems. It spreads on the surface by means of slender rhizomes.
Paesia-scaberula-2

Three.
Eucomis montana. Very handsome it may be, but it stinks. We moved it away from the front door lest visitors think it was us when we opened the door. We have several other Eucomis species and varieties, mostly in pots, and none of them smell of anything much. You can grow them from seed, then propagate good forms from leaf cuttings.
Eucomis-montana

Four.
Anemone x hybrid ‘Lorelei’, or ‘Loreley’ according to some. The last 48 hours of wind and rain have taken their toll on this bloom, but you get the idea. The best pictures I have of it are backlit shots of the back of the blooms. After 3 years it is still a tight clump but I expect it to start spreading at some point. There’s no happy medium with some plants, they sulk or they rampage.
Anemone-Loralei

Five.
Grafting. In this case, a couple of varieties of Camellia reticulata, ‘Songzilin’ and ‘Mouchang’. ‘Songzilin’, aka ‘Robert Fortune’, was probably introduced in 1824 and then again by Robert Fortune in 1844. ‘Mouchang’ is a more recent American raised hybrid. The pure bred reticulate varieties are very hard to root from cuttings so are usually grafted. Varieties of C. sasanqua are usually used but I had seedlings of C. reticulata and used a cleft graft. I did some last year and got about 50% take.
Camellia-graft
I’ll do a more detailed blog about them on my Camellia blog at some point. Here is a link to a picture of ‘Songzilin’.

Six.
Grafting. Yeah, I know I already did that one, but this is different. The first Six on Saturday I did was back on 6th May and one of the things I included was a graft of ‘Plympton Pippin’ onto my poor specimen of ‘Elstar’ apple. I’d grafted it (simple splice) in February and by May it was flowering. Well now it has a quite respectable sized apple on it. I know I should have removed it, but it doesn’t seem to have held it back at all, the extension growth from that scion is as good as any of the others done at the same time. Apple grafting is easy and it’s a great way of getting better pollination, growing more varieties in a small space and giving you something to blog about.
SOS32

So that’s another Saturday and another Six. I see ThePropagator, host of this meme, has posted his, no doubt others will follow.

Composting.

When something in gardening is agreed by absolutely everyone to be a good thing it seems perverse to ask the question “why?”. I tend to the view that that is when it most needs to be asked.

Composting and the multiple benefits of compost are among of the great untouchable sacred cows of gardening, especially among the organic fraternity. However, ask a bunch of gardeners to explain why and I bet you’d get a very mixed bag of responses. Ken Thompson, author of a book on compost, called “Compost”, says “Few things are better for your plants and for the environment than home made compost”.  He then goes on to explain how decaying plant material ends up as humus. He points out though that only a small proportion of the original material ends up as humus, the rest being broken down to carbon dioxide and water.

The breakdown process is effected  by microbes which secrete mucilages that bind soil particles together into crumbs, creating what is known as “soil structure”. However, a protein called glomalin, produced by mycorrhizal fungi, has been found to be present in soils in far greater amounts than humus, and it is largely glomalin that aggregates soil into crumbs, not humus. Since the mycorrhizal fungus is getting its nutrition from its symbiotic partner, the growing plant, not from organic matter added to the soil, the humus derived from compost is somewhat sidelined in the narrative. It is growing plants (including weeds) and their associated mycorrhiza, that are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to soil improvement.

Wikipedia has a bullet point list of the benefits of soil organic matter and humus, the first of which is that organic matter feeds microorganisms, maintaining high and healthy levels of soil life. There is an implication in much of what you read that there is a direct correlation between lots of life in a soil and how well plants will grow in it. To which I would ask why, in commercial horticulture, do nurserymen almost all grow nursery stock in the all but sterile medium of peat and tomato growers in equally sterile variations of hydroponics.

Plants have evolved to grow in an extraordinary range of environments. The ferns growing on my neighbour’s roof, or the sedum around my other neighbour’s chimney, do not have their roots in a lovely friable living soil. Yet they survive perfectly well. Plants that need constant moisture or higher levels of nutrients would struggle or even die, but could all be grown in a peat nursery compost or by hydroponics.

The role played by the living and once living fraction of soil then is to provide the simple things that plants require, water, air and simple inorganic nutrients. A soil in good condition is open enough to allow the free passage of excess water whilst retaining good quantities in the porous organic matter. It holds nutrients sufficiently tightly for them not to be leached by rain, but loosely enough to be readily available to plants.

Humus, organic matter derived from but no longer recognisable as decomposing plant material, is beneficial to the soil in many ways. It adds to a soil’s cation exchange capacity and its water holding capacity. It acts as a buffer against excessively acidic or alkaline conditions and can absorb toxic materials such as heavy metals and excess nutrients.

Another claim about composting that is not true is that all the nutrients in the plant material added to the heap are retained within the heap. One study found that nearly a quarter of the nitrogen in mixed organic refuse was lost in the first twenty weeks of composting, probably mainly as gaseous ammonia. Adding soil to the mix stopped the loss, presumably because the ammonia was absorbed by the clay fraction of the soil. Additionally, any liquid draining from the heap will be taking dissolved potassium with it.

Composting can generate high temperatures, but only if there is sufficient volume of material for heat loss to be reduced enough. The small volume of a typical domestic compost heap has far too high a surface area to volume ratio to heat sufficiently to destroy weed seeds and plant pathogens.

It turns out that simply mixing plant wastes into the soil, or spreading it on the surface and letting worms do the mixing, adds more humus and more nutrients to the soil than if it is composted first and  has also been shown to produce higher yields. The relatively coarse nature of uncomposted material means that adding it to light sandy soils might make them even more open to the detriment of the crop, whereas compost holds much more moisture and will reduce the openness of the soil. On heavy soils there will be a benefit from the opening up of the soil.

What I have been unable to find any reference to is the benefits arising from the early stages of breakdown of organic matter if that takes place in the soil rather than on the compost heap. It seems to me that the level of activity in the early stages is far greater than in the later stages. The very rapid build up of heat, the product of respiration by bacteria, within hours of a pile of suitable material being stacked up, followed by a peak in worm activity in the weeks following, is then followed by a tailing off of activity and a finished product which is not generating any heat or supporting hardly any fauna visible to the naked eye.

It is worth pointing out that nature does not build compost heaps. Plants die down in autumn, or leaves fall from trees, and breakdown happens at ambient temperature. A significant amount of vegetation may be eaten by herbivores and the breakdown process is then well under way when it is deposited on the soil surface.

So it seems to be the case that we put stuff onto a compost heap for convenience. During the growing season there may be no bare ground on which to spread organic material. It is sometimes suggested that fresh material encourages slugs, but if they eat it, rather than the crop, they become part of the solution and less of a problem.

Almost all of what goes on my allotment compost heaps goes through my shredder first, so it breaks down to a material I can use for mulching in my no-dig regime quite quickly. Most of what I accumulate over the growing season is used for mulching bare ground ahead of the winter. There isn’t too much opportunity for nutrients to be lost to the heap in that time, rainfall would likely never be sufficient to run through the heap removing soluble nutrients. Soft material such as peas and beans gets mixed with woodier material like hedge trimmings.

mulch

Pea haulms, shredded and spread directly on the soil.

I believe it is very beneficial to have any bare ground covered in the winter to protect its structure and I have used compost for that purpose. What I am now planning to do is to spread shredded material directly onto the plot where bare ground appears that I am not planning to crop again until spring. I would anticipate the softer material disappearing quickly, the tougher stuff remaining to provide protection to the soil. If a suitable area presents itself, I shall do half with composted material, the other half with uncomposted material. Then if I grow the same crop in both areas I can look for any visible differences.

References.
Roger Brook – The no dig gardener – http://www.nodiggardener.co.uk/search/label/Glomalin
USDA AgResearch Magazine – https://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2002/sep/soil
E. W. Russell – Soil Conditions and Plant Growth 10th edition. Composting – pp 271-3

 

End of month view – July 2017

eom-July-17_01

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.

eom-July-17_02

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.

eom-July-17_03

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.

eom-July-17_04

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.

eom-July-17_05

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.