Tuesday 24 November 2015

Indoor cyclamen outside

Cyclamen persicum for Autumn bedding

I used to rail against garden centres when they sold the florist cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum to grow outside as Autumn bedding. For several years now I have enthusiastically grown them this way!
In our UK climate if you plant  ‘indoor cyclamen’ outside in early September with luck you will have ten weeks of colour before severe winter cold kills them. If you live in an urban heat island they might last even longer. In balmy South West Scotland I even saw them in Spring! I don’t know if they had been bedded at that time or had remained outside all Winter.
What used to really rile me was when florist cyclamen were displayed amongst the truly hardy Cyclamen hederifolium. If they were not even hardened the greater my ire.

Now garden centres don’t even distinguish between Cyclamen persicum designated for inside or out! Nor do they have to. Other than a possible element of hardening-off there is no need - most varieties behave exactly the same. I am not even aware that modern varieties are any hardier than the old ones. (There would seem to be a market for more hardy ones and it would be surprising if no breeding was being attempted. On the other hand what is the incentive to sell plants that live longer?).

I don’t know why bedding-out of cyclamen has become popular over the last twenty years. Are we experiencing milder Autumns? Are we more ‘short term’  and ‘immediate gratification’ gardeners than we used to be? Are the plants just cheaper?

In 2014 I bought my cyclamen in pots
This year I bought my cyclamen in six packs at Aldi. Six sturdy young plants cost £2.99. I splashed £8.97. What extraordinary value to brighten our Autumn. The way to purchase such plants at superstores is to buy within a very few days of stocking. Our growers are superb but as to keeping plants alive shops are shocking! Go to Aldi on a Saturday morning when new stock has just arrived.

Bedding out

Plant them in tubs or in the ground. Perhaps better in tubs as they can be displayed near a window or an entrance. If there is an element of shelter which gives some frost and wind protection so much the better. Purchased plants  have a small rooting volume so don’t overlook watering them when dry. Although watering is important, persistent heavy rain is a greater threat. Your container must have ample drainage and your compost must be well drained.

It seems to me that outdoor florist cyclamen stand up to minus four degrees centigrade of frost. Prolonged spells are more damaging than short ones. Some gardeners extend their plant’s life by putting tubs under shelter if it is forecast very cold.

Last year I was too parsimonious in planting and they were too far apart. Bed out more densely, they won’t grow much bigger at this time of the year.

How hardy can Cyclamen persicum really be? 
I had a plant in the garden in a sheltered corner, under a roof overhang and growing amongst Cyclamen hederifolium that survived the double Winter of 2010! Botanist friend Mike refused to be impressed and observed that it got quite cold in Persia too!

Still here in 2012

Not much better in 2013

Last year it flowered!

The plant was not very impressive, and remained above ground for only a very short time. Such things only excite crazy gardeners like me!
Did it survive because it was well established? Perhaps it benefited from mycorrhizal association that established cyclamen sometime enjoy? Perhaps the excellent drainage and dryness helped? 

Cathi’s plant must have been in two years. It popped up in January and by late February it was quite bedraggled!

Last early Spring I noticed a cyclamen with magnificent foliage markings in the dark passage-way between Cathi’s house and her hedge. It must have been there for at least two years as I knew I had not planted it myself. A single plant of a previously bedded out Cyclamen persicum had survived. I wonder if it will reappear? I doubt it.

In my piece about The National Kabschia Saxifraga Collection at Waterperry in Oxford I photographed a Cyclamen persicum pictured growing under minimal overhead protection.

At Waterperry growing in very sharply drained compost

Straws in the wind. Sensible people don’t try to grow hardy cyclamen permanently outside. Not being sensible I have bought some species Cyclamen persicum seed from Chilterns! I envisage some combination of bedding and overwintering in my cold greenhouse.

Two years to grow two seedlings in my unheated greenhouse. I must be mad!
Only an enthusiast would grow their own plants from seed when they are so cheap to buy.

How to grow Cyclamen persicum as a house plant
I used to recommend not to even keep indoor cyclamen when they finished flowering and just throw them away. Although it is a long time since I grew them inside, if I did so now I might enjoy the challenge of keeping them for several years. I know gardeners who say they go from strength to strength. For other folk they just fade away!

I rescued my battered outdoor florist cyclamen in mid December last year and overwintered them unwatered in my cold greenhouse. These are the same plants in their second year

There are three secrets to growing healthy cyclamen indoors.

  1. Give them good light and place them close to the window. Even on a frosty night they will be okay.
  2. Keep them cool. Do not put them near radiators. Keep them outside the curtain at night unless it is extremely cold.
  3. The real key is good watering. They do not like to be at maximum wetness for long periods. Inexperienced gardeners often misunderstand this advice and wrongly give them their water sparingly in dribbles!
Let your plants become very dry, almost wilting and then thoroughly water. Some gardeners let them drink up from their saucer for five minutes, others dunk in the sink. These practices are excellent but unless normal watering just runs away through a dried peat compost you just generously water from the top.
This watering policy is met in an extreme form when watering house plants such as streptocarpus when it is best to let them really wilt before giving them a thorough soaking. Orchids too like to go a long time between waterings before soaking in the sink recharges their water absorptive natural velum root coating.
As cyclamen leaves turn yellow in Spring cease watering almost completely until new growth emerges in Autumn. 
As mentioned by this time most folk will have turned them into compost or even wasted their potting compost by throwing it in the green bin.

Last thoughts in late November 
It has been a very mild and wet Autumn. Only two days ago we had our first frost. Quite a hard one.

The hard frost knocked this one back and it looks rather crestfallen. As I look out of my window this morning it looks a little better.
I have been very pleased with the outside Cyclamen persicum which has now given us ten weeks of pleasure and I anticipate a week or two more. 
The extreme rainfall has been a feature which for many gardeners might have caused a problem. What a contrast the wet compost has been with the dry regime that I have recommended as desirable inside.
My plants have withstood the rain very well and there has been hardly any fungal disease and no plant death!
I attribute my success to the fact that my plants are in deep containers - about ten inches depth of compost (well in my case sandy soil). I have explained in this post how in wet conditions a deep soil profile has a more favourable ratio of oxygen to water than a shallow one when at maximum water holding capacity after heavy rain.
The other feature of this mild Autumn is that the plants have filled out in their containers more than I expected.

This plant was slightly less exposed to the recent hard frost and has not turned a hair.

My previous posts about cyclamen
Cyclamen hederifolium
Cyclamen coum

I have recently revised my 2012 post on green manure

Monday 16 November 2015

Garden myth series: Why do gardeners insist on staking their plants?

You may be doing more harm than good or merely wasting your time

No stakes here
Today I argue that trees frequently do not need staking and herbaceous perennials should be grown with minimal or zero support.
(green print for herbaceous and black print for trees and shrubs)

The garden centre where your bought your tree will wish to persuade you to buy a tree stake, tree tie and tree guard. Consider buying the tree guard. 
You might have similar crutches in the corner of your shed. Leave them there.

You might have an endless supply of birch branches and twigs or strong hazel rods. Leave them for nature and deprive yourself of endless hours of fun cutting and twisting and carefully placing them in your herbaceous borders. Let your plants grow as nature intended.
Expensive plastic and metal paraphenalia look cute in the Sunday newspapers. Keep your garden natural and your money in your pocket.

Most unsupported plants grow straight and thicken their trunks and stems in respond to wind stresses. Tree and shrub trunks become strong and lay down strengthening xylem and have a healthy trunk taper.
Herbaceous stems thicken and grow firm, especially when in large open clumps and when they are not drawn by poor illumination.

Some sites receive very strong and persistent winds from a prevailing direction. Tree trunks might lean. Maybe you can amend this by pruning? Perhaps you should construct a windbreak or plant a strong hedge or screen grown from small vigorous young plants to protect your garden.
I concede – in some situations trees might need staking. But the kind of support offered at the garden centre will not be enough if your garden faces the sea on an exposed site I once saw on the west coast of the Isle of Mann!

If your garden consists of tall herbaceous plants planted in narrow borders and there are lots of sheltering walls which draw growth and create swirling wind turbulence perhaps then some of your plants such as delphiniums, lupins and peonies need some support.

Cathi’s paeony gets drawn in a narrow border between the hedge and her house. She has supported it in her own idiosyncratic  way

My paeony in a more open space gets no help at all
Why to try to avoid staking trees 
a) Unstaked young saplings and trees will grow straight and strong in response to natural stresses.
b) Often, container grown young trees – larger than you might imagine – are sufficiently anchored by their rootball to not need a stake. When planting return surrounding soil firmly. Do not plant extra deeply which will often kill trees.
c) Positioning a straight stake to accommodate a container grown plant is difficult and skewering the rootball of a young plant is damaging.
d) Trees become dependent on their stakes. It is very common when trees lose their stakes which have been in position for a very long time they blow over or the trunk snaps.
e) Ties might be too tight or become so as tree girth expands. Left on too long the tree becomes strangled.
f) Nothing is more ugly than still-staked maturing trees.
Worse going into gardens where the tree now holds up a rotten stake and the owner has not noticed.

Cathi’s apple tree had become dependant on its stake which I removed last year. Some apple rootstocks have a reputation to be poorly anchored. It is no surprise this top heavy plant on wet sandy soil started to blow over! I am afraid its necessary new stake is rather Heath Robinson! I shall lighten the top by pruning today!

This stake is now useless
If you must stake
Open ground trees with a poor rootball will sometimes need staking. The heavier a trunk the more likely a tree to be unstable. Although it is frequently better to plant a small tree, needs must, and it is sometimes appropriate to plant a large tree and stake.

My own preference where staking is unavoidable is to use a short stake. It might be eighteen inches deep with a further foot above ground. The tie must be broad and not cut into the stem. Many proprietary belted tree ties are ideal. 
Such less-intrusive staking gives the tree the best chance of making a strong pliable trunk.
If this does not appeal go higher but preferably no more than half way.
We planted this ‘Williams’ pear in remembrance of Harry last year and used a short stake. I left in its cane and failed to use a sufficiently long tree guard! Despite my incompetence it now thrives and the stake must be removed

Tree ties should not be too rigid and it is desirable that some limited movement can take place down to the root. Sometimes a strong bamboo cane will serve better than a rigid stake. Any canes used by the nursery on a container grown plant are likely to be useless and should be removed.

Eliminate the stake as quickly as possible. If in the growing season this may be as little as a few months after planting. If you give it a whole season of new growth it will be better to remove the stake before the start of the next one. Only on very large top heavy trees do you need to leave the stake in longer.

Herbaceous perennials
When I worked at Askham Bryan my course of horticultural students maintained under my supervision the herbaceous borders in the grounds. You might guess that my methods were rather unorthodox.
The college is on a very windy glacial ridge in the flat Vale of York. I refused to stake anything! 
New seasonal growth was exposed to the elements from early Spring emergence. The wind was not usually strong but was very frequent. The plants in their island borders grew straight and sturdy in full sunshine.
Despite Summer gales they always stood straight like soldiers.

Now I do concede that after particularly stormy weather I would stroll around the borders and cut away the occasional aberrant shoot or broken stem.
I swear this was no more  damage than any gardener would suffer where she or he had conventionally staked. Perhaps even less.
The only difference was that the conventional staker would take the view that the damage was an unfortunate act of nature and he or she had done everything possible to prevent it. 
The casual observer would perceive the damage in my borders as a result of neglect! Its all in the mind!

My Morecambe and Wise border is unstaked

Peter does not stake either. I love the skilled height variation
The same psychology applies to the planter of trees. The thinking is that when staked everything has been done to avoid accident or disaster (and perhaps consequent ridicule).
Much better to risk the rare blowing over that comes with the first storm. It is not  usually too late to reconsider readjusting a leaning newly planted tree. I guarantee that if the trunk of an unstaked newly planted tree actually snaps then nature has done you a favour and revealed a serious flaw.

I stake herbaceous perennials in none of my five gardens! I agree that in my garden at home Brenda sneaks the odd string round a clump or a few bamboo canes in a delphinium. I confess that Cathi next door has a few peonies in a chicken wire cage! Not put there by me! I admit that not all my plants grow straight. Sometimes I even cut away an odd shoot . (The only cut flowers that my new wife ever gets - she can always have more but she never asks). 
I am quite ruthless and the unchanged line of my mower prunes any plants that stray over the lawn.

In the average small garden there are some circumstances where staking perennials is appropriate. Perhaps when tall plants are grown in small clumps and in small narrow shaded borders. If you twisted my arm, perhaps 5 to 10% of the plants?

Why are trees normally staked in public places?
Is it just that it is expected and that professional contractors are following some foolish specification? Are they protecting themselves against ignorant expectation?
It might just be that they tend to plant big trees that do need initial support?

On a recent holiday in Sorrento and on our walk round Capri there were lots of street trees. All were staked and sometimes the stakes were even bigger than the trees. There was no technical need to have staked many of them and in many cases the tree had become detached from the stake.
I think there may be two reasons for staking such trees. It might deter or make life more difficult for vandals. A more subtle reason is that the stake is saying “I have been planted and I am supposed to grow here”. There are many situations that an unsupported sapling growing in a street or a hedge might otherwise be unthinkingly chopped down. If you have seen the parking in Italy you might expect to find such a tree has been run over!

In the peace of your own garden just let the tree grow without any ugly appendage.

Planting the Italian way

Completely detached stake outside our favourite Sorrento restaurant
I agonise about removing Cathi’s fruit tree stakes
They do have to go! But when is the best time and if they have become dependant  should I lighten the head by pruning?
You will see from the pictures that there is plenty of scope for pruning to adjust the balance and weight distribution at the top.
I have recently read a fascinating book about ‘Wind Pruning’ which points out that for very large mature trees giving a strong simple shape sometimes brings about vibrational rocking in heavy wind that can lead to disaster in the first storm after pruning! I am confident this will not apply to Cathi’s fruit trees(?)
As to when, there is some merit in removing the stakes when these deciduous trees are dormant and the leafless trees take less wind pressure. But is this exposing them to damage when they are not making new strengthening thickening? I speculate that by late Winter new growth will be awakening. I will remove the stakes in February but prune the trees today!

Oh dear I have failed to remove the stake on Malus 'Golden Hornet’ on the village plot! Note the mountain ash which has grown from a self sown seed and has never had any support whatsoever

My Cedrus atlantica glauca was planted as a whippy seven foot high sapling. It had no stake.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Overheard at an open garden

Garden- What garden? 
  Another fine article by Peter Williams

I sometimes  wonder what visitors actually remember about my garden after their visit – is it an overall impression, or a memory of a particular area or plant that was looking good on the open day, or perhaps something that looked poor and needed attention? I actually found out what one visitor remembered recently when I was giving a talk to a local gardening club. As I sat on the front row waiting for the meeting to open I was chatting to an audience member who asked where I was from. When I replied Seaton Ross, she reported that the gardening club had an excellent visit there in spring. “Yes, that was my garden” I replied “and I remember seeing you in the group.” She went on enthusiastically saying that it had been a lovely afternoon with excellent weather and the club members had really enjoyed the trip and lots had gone home with plants. Then she remembered the cakes- “I had a piece of gooseberry cake at your garden: I had never even heard of gooseberry cake before the visit but it was amazing.”  
Yes I replied,“Gooseberry cake is one of my wife’s special recipes.”  
Feeling confident because my companion had had such a good time I politely asked what she remembered about the garden. After a long thoughtful pause she replied: 
You know, I cannot remember anything at all about the garden but the cakes were wonderful.” 
Cakes remembered

How could anyone forget these?
At least this visitor had looked at my garden even if she remembered nothing about it a few months later. On an earlier occasion a potential visitor wrote off the garden without even looking at it! The person in question is now one of my closest friends but our relationship did not start well. We had both been asked to give advice about improving the appearance of a small area of waste ground owned by the parish. We met with a member of the local council at the site and both made suggestions. I was unaware at this time that my fellow advisor was nationally famous for doing just this sort of thing in churchyards. I did however, quickly get the feeling that he thought my input was unhelpful and quite unnecessary (in the 'This village is only big enough for one horticulturist' sort of way). After the meeting he drove me the short distance home and I asked if he would like to have a look around my garden. We approached the gate and he looked over at the front garden which is lovely in spring and autumn but a little dull in mid-summer when this meeting took place.  After a very short examination my companion declined the offer and got back into his car and left. Having never visited the garden he did not realise that our main garden lay behind the house and was not visible from the gate. A year later, on the day of the inaugural village open gardens, he appeared unannounced, sometime before opening time and asked to look around. He was surprised to find that we actually had quite a nice a rear garden with interesting plants. We quickly became really good friends and have remained so ever since. 
I am down on my knees, mea culpa. I was late for my tea….
PS you are still invited for dinner tonight!
In fact the front garden is charming 
Sex and gardening
On our first NGS open day I overheard two females discussing the garden - “Do you think the main gardener is a man or woman“ said the first.
They both looked around and the second said- “Well, the lawn is really good and the edges are excellent, the hedge is beautifully cut and that suggests it’s a man’s  garden but ... there are no straight lines and the herbaceous border is nicely curved and that suggests a female touch.” 
“Yes” said the first, “but have you seen the herbaceous border, it’s rubbish, just a muddle of plants with no care taken about colour combinations, leaf shapes or relative size -  this must be a man’s garden.”  
Peter’s own work including the intricate roof on the sun house which he built himself. Although now the border is much improved I do like the use of bulbs before the border grows in the Summer 
Is this male or female? 
Julie is Peter’s former student and has transformed his herbaceous borders
And they were correct on both counts – it is a man’s garden and the herbaceous border was indeed in need of some attention. A couple of years later I asked a close female friend who is an expert at colour themed beds for help with the herbaceous border. She came for lunch one day in summer and then viewed the garden. After spending quite a long time examining the herbaceous planting she said – “This is a classic border”. I was very pleasantly surprised by this and thought perhaps it is not as bad as I thought after all, but then she went on- “ Yes, a classic  ‘Morecambe and Wise’ border, all the right plants but not necessarily in the right order.” After extensive repositioning with the help and guidance of my friend, I believe the border now looks much more interesting, colour coordinated and feminine.   
More Morecambe than wise

Peter’s pleasure. How would you rate this? 
That's better
Plant sales
Groups usually visit in April and May but occasionally they wish to come in June.  At this time my potted spring bulbs have largely finished and I sometimes replace the containers of tulips with pots of rhododendrons in flower. I overheard one visitor talking enthusiastically about a few pots of compact very floriferous rhododendrons that I had put on the patio- “I will certainly buy one of those if they have any for sale”  he said, to which his companion responded- “That would be a daft thing to do – it’s a well known fact that shrubs only flower really well just before they die – mark my words, those will be dead by autumn.”  
This only confirmed my long-held view that whatever follows the phrase - ‘It’s a well known fact’ is usually wrong.
Doomed to die?
I always try to have plants for sale that reflect the garden and that is not difficult because all are propagated from garden stock and none are bought in for the event. I frequently hear visitors, especially couples, carefully discussing whether it is worth spending £2.50 for a plant that they probably could not get from a garden centre for less that £5.00, if at all. If I think that they are dithering but one of the pair really wants the plant, I suggest that it is only the price of a cup of coffee that will provide enjoyment for just 10 minutes – whilst the plant is potentially immortal, capable of multiplying and could provide pleasure for a lifetime – what a bargain!
Bargains on Open day
We are not all gardeners
Postman’s patch 

Surprising at it may seem not everyone is keen on gardening. I was expecting a parcel one day and left a note on the front door to tell the postman that I would be in the back garden and asked if he could come and find me. He duly appeared through the car port and looked at the large garden that appears and said with a sarcastic Glaswegian smile- “Do you think that you’ve enough garden here, couldn’t  you do with another field or two to go at.” I replied that it kept me out of mischief to which he retorted- “It’s far more fun getting into mischief than crawling about on your hands and knees in a garden, you should give it a go sometime.”  
The garden will be like this on Open day 
Out of the mouths of children 
Gardener visitors are invariably polite and complimentary. When in conversation with the garden owner they will think of positive, supportive things to say.  Sometimes however, their real thoughts may be more critical and usually remain unsaid. This does not always apply to young children who have not mastered the art of diplomacy and hence supply more honest comments.
When our children were small I had a very embarrassing encounter with the owner of the once magnificent St Nicholas garden where the rambling rose ‘Bobby James’ was raised. When we visited, the garden had been in decline for some years. As we walked around the somewhat sad remains of the garden with a collapsed glasshouse and overgrown shrubbery, we encountered Lady Serena James. Lady James was charming and asked if we were enjoying the garden. Being diplomatic I said- “Yes I have wanted to see this garden for ages” which was absolutely true. I was just going to add – it must have been wonderful at its best, when my young daughter cheerfully interrupted the conversation saying “But Daddy you just said it was a weed infested jungle!” Lady James just smiled and said - “ Just tell your father that he needs to look past the weeds to see the real garden.”  
And finally – What do I think
Although I make great efforts to ensure that my garden looks as attractive as possible on open days because people are asked to pay an entrance fee to support a charity, my garden is not a show garden, it is just my garden. I do not add plants, pots or beds simply because they will look good on open day and I do not put off major gardening activities because of the reverse. And I no longer feel the need to make excuses for things undone or plants past their best. My garden is my personal space where I potter about and feel comfortable. It is where friendships are formed, re-established and strengthened, where plants and ideas are exchanged freely and where ‘real world problems’ are excluded at least temporarily. Raising money for charity on the occasional open day is a bonus, but it is not why I garden. Overheard comments may be amusing, insightful or critical but ultimately they are not really of any importance. 
                                    Well worth extending
Superb plant combinations, arrangements of plant height and a strong simple line. Peter is so pleased with Julie’s work that they are making the border bigger
Anna Pavord perfectly captured many of my feelings about gardening in her last article as the gardening correspondent of The Independent newspaper. It is well worth reading . 
Watch The classic Morecambe and Wise sketch where they play the right notes but in the wrong order.

Peter’s 2016 Open day will be held on… Sunday May 1st
The price of his fine rhododendrons are a fraction of the price you pay at the garden centre and their superb quality ensures they will thrive  - as long as you have a suitable acid soil.
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