Wednesday 31 October 2012

Her indoors: chequered progress of our bougainvillea

Bougainvillea glabra
We bought our plant for 1.5 euros in the ‘floating flower market’ in Old Amsterdam. One can identity with a small plant you grow-on from a ‘pup’.

On returning home, our holiday souvenir was immediately potted into a five inch pot. It went straight into our well illuminated east facing conservatory. I would like to report smooth progress thereon. I cannot.

All was well at first and within three months it had made a very fine head of colourful bracts. It always surprises me how well a large plant thrives in a small pot - as long it is given a regular supply of water and nutrients.

First setback.

It was quite traumatic. We returned from a few days away and found our plant wilted, leafless and bone dry. It looked dead. I have to admit I have form here and knew there was still hope!
  • I pruned it back by a third, the wispy bits at the top were clearly dead
  • I soaked the rootball in a tub for five minutes
  • I immediately potted-on into a 10 litre pot of my own soil based compost 

Within a month it struggled back to life, then completely recovered.

A non gardening friend expressed surprise that a mediterranean plant he associated with the dry soil and sunshine of Italy and Spain should be susceptible to a few days of drought. 

He was unaware of the massive root systems such plants make in the ground. He also didn’t understand the huge amounts of water that leaves lose by transpiration. The large leaf area of climbers make them particularly vulnerable to water loss.

Second setback

We noticed aphids at the top of the plant. I usually use Provado vine weevil killer for house plant pests. I like the vine weevil formulation, it is systemic and when watered on the soil it is absorbed and translocated within the plant. There is no messy, smelly spray in the house.

aphid arrives
Ten days after using Provado the aphids were rampant. The idiot gardener (me) had overlooked the fact that translocated insecticides, unless applied as an overall spray, don’t work well on woody plants! After a belated spray, it was another month before the plant recovered and I emerged from the doghouse.

Recovered (almost)

Tuesday 30 October 2012

How to repair a bumblebee

In September, I did a post called Flight of the Bumblebee. This is an update from The Campaign For Solitary Bees, who kindly sent me THIS LINK, to a wonderful article about saving bumblebees from mites. It was originally posted on, one of the best wildlife sites online.

I have today (May 2018) published a review of a wonderful book from the Bumblebee Trust. If I interpret it correctly it casts doubt about mites actually being a problem. The mite commonly seen are harmless - or even beneficial - residents of their nest hitching a ride

Sunday 28 October 2012

October at Boundary Cottage

A very good friend visited us recently. He took lots of pictures in our garden which he kindly gave me to share. I am so thrilled with them that I am posting them straight away. Autumn colour is so beautiful, yet so ephemeral. Last night, we have had our first flurry of snow.

picture captions go left to right

1). Nigella, love-in-a-mist:
2). Sanguisorba, burnet
3). Miscanthus, No pollinating insects here, grasses are wind pollinated
4). Agapanthus. Don’t cut back herbaceous plants too early.

1). Spartium junceum, the Spanish broom
2). Verbena bonariensis

1). Identification of apple anyone?
2). Acer palmatum dissectum

1). Birch twigs. I am an arachnophile now
2). Stealth bomber on Geranium ‘Rozanne’

1). Wiegela looymansii aurea (and bee)
2). Sweet white grapes. The birds love them!

1). Cornus, dogwood 
2). Verbena (and spider)
3). Nigella pepper-pots have scattered their seed
4). Clematis, or has an ‘ood’ escaped from Dr. Who?

Thursday 25 October 2012

Converting to a no dig system

You don’t just stop digging!

I am delighted some gardeners are now considering stopping digging. Perhaps I might review some of the most important advantages that I have discussed so far.
  • significant reduction in time and effort.
  • access to the soil in wet weather.
  • it is more natural than cultivation and encourages wildlife within and above the soil.
  • plants will be healthier, far healthier and sometimes when no dig is practiced in permanent borders it may be the difference between a plants’ life or death.
  • as the years pass weed control becomes much easier.

There will be more worms for him!
I am absolutely convinced that deep cultivation amongst established plants is very bad practice. I am more relaxed about digging in the vegetable garden. Personally I am very keen on the merits of ‘no dig’ in the vegetable garden, but am happy to concede that skilled practitioners in traditional systems will achieve equal and, in some cases, better results.

Making the change

I would like to point out that if you take up ‘no dig’ you will have to be patient and make some changes to your gardening philosophy.
  • Some benefits of ‘no dig’ occur straight away, others improve with time and continue to increase for many years.
  • Many cultivations ‘sow the seed’ of the need for the next cultivation. The first cultivation might give short term benefit but long term harm. These ill effects take some time to be worked out of the system.
  • You have to change your perception of a healthy soil.
  • You must rid yourself of myths and notions about aerating the soil. Yes, cultivation will aerate it, but with unfortunate consequences.
  • Your weed control needs to be excellent. Do not let weeds seed. Eliminate perennial weeds at the very start: constant forking-out of weed roots is as bad as digging! This advice might daunt you, but as time passes weed control becomes swift and easy. 
  • Dug soil in ornamental borders slakes down with rainfall and in dry conditions becomes hard. This makes it appear necessary to dig again to undo the damage. It’s like a junkie needing another fix. ‘Cold turkey’ is often needed. It might come in the form of a surface mulch such as bark or garden compost.

A mulch will start to undo the 
damage done by previous digging
You do not need to use glyphosate but it certainly helps

I have expressed my own philosophy in the post ‘Batting for glyphosate’.

It is possible to eliminate perennial weed by non chemical methods. Organic gardeners do it all the time and it’s hard work. Go to Charles Dowding’s wonderful organic no-dig site to find out how to do it. It sometimes involves the successful use old carpets, plastic mulches and newspaper.

Allotment gardeners frequently tell you about old carpets ‘wick with wicken’ (couch grass) and other perennial weeds. They are usually on abandoned plots of would-be organic gardeners! I must admit, I cannot understand anyone refusing to use glyphosate when they use environmentally suspect polythene. Newspapers? I am, myself, keen on the many garden uses of newspaper and recycle all of ours this way.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Garden myths debunked 4: daytime watering

Myth: it’s bad practice to water during the day.

I do not agree. I have a mental image of plants dying of thirst on a hot day and the inexperienced gardener waiting until evening because a TV gardening guru said he should! It won’t happen to commercial growers, they water all the time. 

I do not give any consideration whatsoever to the time of day when I irrigate. I water when I judge the plants need it. Nature does not seem to wait until night-time to rain. When I talk about this issue to good gardeners, I find they do water in the day, but somehow feel guilty about it!

Origin of the myth
  • I have already discussed the related myth, the sunshine/water-on-the-leaf syndrome. 
  • The argument is made that on humid nights the plants have more time to absorb water before it evaporates. If this has any significance at all, it is when the gardener is giving a grossly inadequate amount of water. The principle of good watering is ‘ample but infrequently’, NOT ‘little and often’.
  • The completely fallacious belief  that if the soil is wet on the surface, water will somehow ‘soak in’ overnight.
  • The fact  that continuous overhead sprinkler systems will lose water to evaporation before it hits the ground. It will sometimes be true that this waste of water will be greater in the day. 

Rain is the best form of irrigation
When is the best time to water?

Usually anytime, but there are special cases. In a greenhouse in autumn, winter and spring it may be best to water on a sunny morning. That way there are less damp surfaces left to encourage fungal disease. There is nothing wrong with watering in the evening. It can a very relaxing activity. Other gardeners’ evening watering suits me fine. It means more water pressure in the mains throughout the day!

Water supply at Bolton Percy churchyard gate

Saturday 20 October 2012

Houseleeks live forever

Sempervivum, common names house leek and liveforever

Two years ago Barbara Wood was our open day ‘artist in the garden’. She was demonstrating making pots. Our sempervivum has thrived in her well-drained pot for eighteen months now, and has never been watered. But it has rained quite a lot! It’s really quite neglected and sits on our doorstep. Completely hardy, it always looks good.

Barbara’s pot
House leeks have in recent years have become quite a cult plant. They vary in size and colour and many nice selections are now readily available. Most of them have variety names, unfortunately lazy gardeners like me tend to forget them. The sempervivums in my garden are by far the most photographed plants on open days. Visitor Martyn Webster took this one.

Houseleeks and companions
Sempervivum flowers are exceptionally beautiful for a few months but are also the plant’s achilles heal. With age, the flowers look rather tatty and need to be cut off. Usually the rosette of leaves that carried the flower dies and also needs cutting away. By this time, however, there are so many new rosettes that a beautiful clump remains which, if you allow it, will slowly increase in size.
Houseleeks are very well named, they can grow in drystone walls and cracks in old buildings. Unfortunately they often disappoint in fashionable roof gardens. The birds love to pull them out!
Sempervivum are the easiest of plants to propagate. Just pull out their rosettes with roots attached, stick them in a pot or in the ground, and watch them grow.

Tucked beneath a dwarf pine tree. Although they like sunshine they also thrive in shade.
A lovely red rosette

Friday 19 October 2012

Plant of the week

Insects love it!

Aster amellus 
‘Violet Queen’ 

It was an NSCGP (now Plant Heritage) pink sheet plant. When this list of endangered plants was published my garden was already filled with ‘Violet Queen’. I could not understand why my favorite plant, which is so easy to grow and so beautiful, could ever become scarce.

Violet Queen has everything you could want in a herbaceous plant.
  • It has the most fantastic colour, with a myriad  purple tones.
  • Like all michaelmas daisies, pollinating insects love it.
  • It is completely hardy and, provided it is given it’s own space, has a fine constitution.
  • It is compact and free standing and does not need staking (even if, unlike me, you are compulsive staker).
  • The flowers maintain their glorious colour for all of ten weeks
  • It never gets powdery mildew, the scourge of michaelmas daisies. Even in the driest gardens, it is completely mildew free.
  • Year on year, it reappears in slowly increasing clumps.

At least ten weeks of beautiful flowers
Violet Queen is a compact
45cm high and sturdy
So why was it rare?
  • Most michaelmas daisies can be easily divided with a sharp spade. They are so easy that this can be done at literally at any time of year. Not ‘Violet Queen’. It is extremely fussy about dividing and, even at the optimum time in mid May, needs special care.
  • It establishes slowly. I propagate it by Irishman’s cuttings (small divisions with roots). I take them in May and directly pot them in compost. They go straight into my cold greenhouse which provides wind protection. They will be ready to plant out in September, but still need tender loving care.
  • Believe it or not, some gardeners still dig their herbaceous borders!  That leaves no chance for the delicate surface roots of this fine plant! Gardeners do not seem to keep a record of the plants they kill by soil cultivation!

Aster amellus ‘Brilliant’ is another favourite. Exactly as it says on the tin, absolutely brilliant!

Tuesday 16 October 2012

A Pruning Class

Restoration pruning of my small tree

Bob Crow was the ‘artist in the garden’ 
at my recent open day. His picture gives 
a better image of my pre-pruned tree 
than any photograph. Two little girls, 
Olivia and Eliza helped Bob with his picture, 
he advised them to watch my blog to see 
their handiwork.
On the pruning course that I used to run at Harlow Carr Gardens in Yorkshire, I would include the following points: 
  • Don’t be scared of having a go, shrubs are tough, you will do them little harm.
  • Any harm is likely to be aesthetic: when you have finished pruning, your work should not be obvious to the casual observer!
  • Pruning cuts should be within the complete volume of the bush: if your cuts are all on the edge you have done it wrong.
  • As you become more confident you should take out big pieces, not lots of little ones. 
  • Restoration pruning of old shrubs can be done at any time of year. Even if some flowers are lost, those that remain on your now elegant shrub look so much better than they did before.
  • Never leave bare stumps at the end of pruned shoots.
Ten years ago my sophora was planted as a shrub 30cm high. Some plants do have a tendency to grow! Formative pruning changed as the shrub became bigger. If you allow it, what was a multi-stemmed shrub will, over the years, become a small tree. My tree threatened to become unsightly so one of the two remaining trunks had to go.

Heavy branches should be dismantled before making the final cut.
The last cut should be at the base of the branch leaving a natural shoulder. It should NOT shave into the main trunk. But why is it black?
After removing the large secondary trunk, a large branch high in the tree spoilt the new outline. It had to be cut back to a new leading branch. I can best illustrate the principle with this much smaller shrub.

A leading shoot grows over my lawn.
Cut it out to a new leading shoot.
Three weeks later it is still alive!

And did my pruning pass the ‘casual observer’ test?

I had rubbed soil on the wound to disguise the large white cut (this is not so silly, a common soil bacteria, Trichoderma viride, is antagonistic to wood decay fungus). 

Brenda returned from her holiday, walked the garden and saw nothing!  Fortunately she approved when I confessed.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Something for the weekend

Dew points

Examine carefully and identify


1. The camera slipped. It’s the golden torch cactus, Eriocactus leninghausii.  This is the least hardy of my outdoor cacti and I have today brought it into my unheated glasshouse where it will remain unwatered for the next four months.

2. A self-sown Dicentra formosa. This variety, ‘Bountiful’ comes almost true from seed.
3. Phlomis russeliana. Three foot high in May, now in October it makes beautiful ground cover.
4. If you have been reading my blog this will be easy. Just press this link.

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