Thursday 23 June 2016

The Aysgarth Rock garden. Was it (very) late Victorian folly?

Aysgarth Rock Garden

I wonder if Frank Sayer had illusions of grandeur when in about 1906 he commissioned that most famous Edwardian Landscaper, James Backhouse of York to build a two storey limestone rock garden in his small cottage garden. It would be uncharitable to think so but it must have looked a little strange in the backyard just over the road.

Cathi recently passed over our hedge a delightful small book about the inspiration, creation, decline and restoration of this delightful garden which is now  a preserved listed building! It is written by current garden owner Rosemary Anderson who with the help of husband Adrian now works to maintain it and opens it to the public for free throughout the year in all daylight hours.
The book is thoroughly researched and extremely well written. It paints a picture of great Victorian gardeners and their gardening fashions. It describes the emergence and much later decline of the renowned Backhouse nursery in York my home town. Little did I realise that such was it’s fame that the combined Backhouse garden and nursery was dubbed ‘Kew of the North’. At its peak it was a hundred acre botanic garden sporting forty greenhouses and employing more than a hundred gardeners. It was the spiritual home for great gardeners of its time. To great garden visionaries such as William Robinson it was a gardening mecca. For Reginald Farrer it was his inspiration for his writing about rock gardens.

As landscapers three generations of the Backhouse family built great gardens - especially  rock gardens and grottos - the length of the land. 
The book intertwines a social history of Aysgarth and Victorian/Edwardian life with meticulous research about the rock garden. Frank Sayer’s family history even reveals a mild Victorian scandal!

The Backhouse and Aysgarth story resonates with me. As a York resident I had heard whispers of a renowned local garden history about which I knew nothing. I remember how the craze for great rock gardens had continued well into my lifetime. I recall with nostalgia great flower shows such as Chelsea, Southport and Harrogate having huge exhibits of running water through water washed limestone. I read with interest that the closing down sale of the Backhouse nursery was in 1955. That was the year that I fell in love with gardening and decided it would be my own future! I have always loved rock gardens and gardening with gravel, water and stone.

Then I read on about the restoration of the overgrown once lovely Aysgarth rock garden at the beginning of the brand new 2000 Millenium. It was full of self seeded trees and overgrown with so called dwarf conifers and when I read further that the main contractor was Michael Myers who is a former student I just had to visit.

Going to Aysgarth - in pictures
I had to see the now very scanty remains of the great Backhouse nursery. I skipped the original site on what is now York railway station(!) and the subsequent Fishergate nursery and went straight to their final home, the renowned Holgate garden.

Little did I know it is 300 yards from York Bridge Club where I attend weekly!  West Bank Park is the only part of the Backhouse nursery left that is not under houses  
It is a now a local municipal park. A group of volunteers work to preserve its history

A few dog walking acres retain shadows
There are of some very fine original  trees
Victoria still reigns
It is likely that this new rock garden uses some of the old stone 
Edinburgh Botanic Rock Gardens started with Backhouse and looks very similar to the original two acre York rock garden

Aysgarh Rock Garden
It really is quite a big heap of stones
The surrounding wall, fence and actual stone are legally preserved
It is a very fine garden...
...and contains some very fine plants
it opens up like a tardis when you go inside
The girls feel that they rather get dragged round gardens
I hope Roger has not got lost...
It looks a little precarious. Much of the cost of restoration was to ensure its safety and stability
Shades of Victorian grottos
Ferns like walls
A former resident used it as a gnome home for his gnome business. They keep finding more gnomes when weeding
A gnother gnome. A writer about Bolton Percy churchyard described me as gnomic

Contrary to rock garden dogma many larger plants are planted on high
Was this one of the originally planted dwarf conifers? With some disturbance to my domestic  bliss I so argued...

There are very fine water features. Apparently the original water works were much more sophisticated and created alpine misty environments
But it still splashes down
I love the green water
Peter is very frond of ferns at the moment...
....and pictured this beautiful crozier
Plants love to grow over and sometimes anchor in limestone. I loved this muehlenbeckia. A different one at home is a real thug and I dare not recommend it 
Inside looking out
Meconopsis cambrica
A lovely seed-around thug
We wondered if these were remnants of original planting
You can source Rosemary Anderson’s delightful book here

Thursday 16 June 2016

The moss phlox, Phlox subulata is very easy to grow

Bulbs can grow through it
It sets off neighbouring plants
Lovely rich red
You might not think it is easy when you see a list on the net of its pest and diseases! I have never seen any - but then I don’t wear my reading glasses very often in the garden. It is important to remember that if you grow plants well, that health is the norm. My version of growing my phlox subulata is to leave it alone and let it get on with covering the ground. It produces a tight covering mat in all shades of mauve, pink, red and white. Mine grows in well drained sandy soil and also in places that at times are quite wet. It fails where it floods!
It comes in all colours 
Phlox subulata
Shame on me, my lack of attention has allowed moss to grow
I was intrigued to read it is called the moss phlox. The leaves are so fine that the name describes it exactly. I could see that they are very similar when I pulled out several handfuls of real sphagnum moss after this very wet Winter! I chopped up this moss and mixed it with soil  to make some special potting compost.

We all know and love the very easy to grow and long flowering taller herbaceous phlox of the paniculata kind. There are many other phloxes in the nurserymen's catalogues of varying ease and difficulty. Some are lovely but very miffy. Nurseryman love the tricky ones because innocents come back time and again!
Helianthemum 'Henfield Brilliant'
Phlox subulata is strong growing and associates with other ground cover (I clip the helianthemum hard after flowering)
If you have the right conditions Phlox subulata is very easy. Mine were purchased originally at my favourite nursery at Reighton near Bridlington about fifteen years ago in 40 pence pots! 
The books correctly tell you they can be raised from seed or cuttings. Why don’t they tell you that it is so much easier to take out a chunk from a clump with your spade?
Yesterday we visited the Reighton nursery from our holiday at Filey! They had very sturdy plants but now 70 pence each. Much to my surprise they are all named varieties. My memory has failed me yet again as I have being telling everyone they were seedling varieties.
Did I excitedly copy their names? Roger dream on.
Phlox subulata
I don’t know if it was two young plants together when I bought it or whether it has self seeded 

Phlox subulata
 In the pink
The idea of a delicate plant such as this phlox covering the ground and smothering weeds is a difficult concept for new gardeners. Ground cover plants won’t kill any weeds for you! It is essential when using them as ground cover to kill all the perennial weeds first. Every last piece of such as couch or ground elder. Sensible gardeners do this in a new garden with glyphosate.
Nor will your phlox do anything if it is surrounded by weeds coming from seed. They need to be hoed or weeded away. As the phlox spreads over the years it provides a tight mat and almost no weed seed germinates within the clump. Even so the diligent gardener might need to pull out the odd dandelion!
The evergreen foliage provides a tight ground cover all the year round
I read in wikipedia that Phlox subulata has a delicate smell of marihuana. I have never noticed  - but then I wouldn’t know!

It has plenty of room to spread its wings in my Worsbrough cemetery garden
It will still be there when the bluebells die down
Do give Phlox subulata a try. It is very easy....
....and has very rich colours
My previous long-long article on border phlox described how to plant phlox and leave it alone - other than to propagate more or move it to a new garden!

Thursday 9 June 2016

A small trial in your garden proves very little!

Don't you believe it.
My grandson Arthur Brook is a budding researcher
It is good to try out new ideas and how we do things in the garden. Without trial and error we would be stuck in a rut and never change.
What worries me is that sometimes gardeners construct 'little trials' and proclaim to the world they have found something new. Worse when they read dubious information that has no scientific validity - often promoted by advertising or someone with an axe to grind - they not only believe it but pass it on as a fact.
And where does that leave me who sets out to advise gardeners?

As a species we would have never have advanced without having been taught by others how to do things and to believe what we are told! It's this same inborn trust that leaves us very vulnerable to getting things wrong.

Although I am suggesting today that what you do in your garden should be scientifically valid, how do you know? There are many dubious 'scientific' facts and explanations peddled in horticulture. Even research as high as University level is sometimes flawed. All the more so when 'the publicity department' has got their hands on research information. Worse still, when research is interpreted by journalists who add their unproven world view as a thin veneer on what has been actually shown.

Nature provides its own trials – and tribulations
I have been involved with students who have done so called trials as part of their education. It is a good thing to have an investigative mind. I have never known them to actually prove anything!
There are too many variables. What seems to be a genuine result is often complete chance. To have scientific validity results need to be duplicated and statistically valid. Not only do experiments need a large number of repetitions in their make up, the actual experiments need to be repeatable by other investigators. How else does one avoid wishful thinking, bias, and very human error?

As an example suppose a gardener is testing a new product, what can go wrong?
If the actual product is used by millions of gardeners and perhaps used by a whole industry - perhaps a high nitrogen fertiliser - you will get a result in as much as the plant may grow quicker and turn a bright green! (But that won't tell you whether it is a good thing or a bad one).
On the other hand if that product is something new and the effects are small the very best you can show is it might work for you.
So many things can go wrong in a trial and the possible errors are legion!
Is there a control? I mean is there really a comparison where two test treatments are exactly the same other than the one variable being tested?
I mean exactly the same! Is the soil for the duplicated treatments identical? Is the drainage uniform? Are light levels the same? In a small garden illumination is very variable. What about the test plants - did they really start out exactly the same? They were of course the same variety!  Is the watering the same?
Are there enough repetitions in the project? Maybe a dozen might give you a clue if the differences are dramatic. If the differences are small you will need many more.
What about the vagaries of your pest and disease? You might eliminate slug damage from your analysis by discarding that example from your results, but is that not bias, slugs might like whatever you are testing? Worse do you eliminate the slug damage if doing so favours the result you prefer but you fail to make such an adjustment the other way round!

Your slug damage might be a black swan

You might inadvertently demonstrate something different to what you mean to. Suppose the said product really was quite useless and you had decided to work it into the ground. You would need similarly to disturb the ground in your control otherwise you would show the effect of hoeing!
Do you have an interest invested in the result? To win an argument, prove a philosophy or perhaps just to be nice to whoever gave you the product to test?
Even if you get a result for your conditions, in that season, in that weather, with that unexpected frosty night, for that time you were unable to water when you got back late, for those conditions you subconsciously thought your product would do well in when you set up the experiment, on your own soil with your own favourite variety: you cannot claim to the world you have proved anything at all.
Then how do we learn?

It gives me a lot of fun to bury newspaper. Eric Robson once filmed me burying newspaper for a TV programme!
By all means try out things different and see how it works for you. Perhaps do little tests. When I started to think about burying newspaper I checked how much water an inch of the Times newspaper would absorb! My result showed it to be substantial but I made the mistake of thinking ten times that thickness would hold ten times the water. It does not as water in deep profiles drains away more.
When my friend Peter read that the Himalayan balsam spreads when the seed floats down rivers and streams he checked out his doubts by adding the seed to a bucket of water and finding it sinks! He would of course agree that like silt, seed might be washed down the river but it is likely that most of the spread is by the well known mechanical dispersal

Himalayan Balsam Impatiens glandulifera
Mechanical dispersal does the job very well
Both the above are petty examples but do illustrate you should have a questioning mind.

The best way to learn is to be shown and taught by skilled experienced practitioners or to read books and magazines. It is also the worst way when there is so much myth and magic that comes from such sources. Gardeners who have science in their background do have an advantage when their knowledge of nature enables them to ask the right questions and sort the wheat from the chaff.
When I am out of my own area of expertise I find myself learning by listening to those I respect and following their lead to check things out further. In matters medical for the last ten years I have followed the sound common sense, independence, experience and encyclopedic knowledge of worldwide medical research by Dr. David Grimes.
When I speculate about hybridity, I freely confess that without access to the writing of geneticist Gene McCarthy I would not have been able to put pen to paper.
When it comes to gardening I wend my own way.

There are many ways to garden. Fortunately most of them work even if methods are not perfect or are even disputed. Just do it and enjoy it. Be open to new ideas and be prepared to make mistakes and learn. Soak up information wherever it comes from but always question.
Every year I try things different but I never have done a designed 'trial'. I have had my triumphs and disasters. I hope I will have many more.

I bumble along

I am trying my home made charcoal as a compost for my tomatoes this year
I hope in my zeal to question the validity of a trial that this not deter you from experimenting with things new. Suppose you are considering trying a new variety of vegetable. You might try the new one but still take a crop of the old one as insurance! The new one might prove to be much nicer but perhaps harder to grow. You will make a subjective decision about what you do in the following year!

Not much of a trial
I took blogger Mark Willis’s advice last year  and tried climbing french bean ‘Cobra’ - in my own case to grow it for an early crop in my greenhouse.
(The previous season I had done the same with runner bean Polestar. It grew and yielded very well. Unfortunately most of the beans matured at the same time and Brenda does not really like runner beans. I had chosen Polestar as a self fertile runner bean as commercial research shows in poly-tunnels tunnels there are insufficient pollinators for cross pollinated varieties. When my leaky greenhouse positively buzzed with bumble bees I realized I had not really needed to chose Polestar)

Last year I sowed six seeds of Cobra in a three inch pot in my warm conservatory on the first of April – it is my only heated growing environment and as we live in that room most of the time I am only allowed a very small corner. The germinated seedlings were planted together at a single station about mid April in my unheated greenhouse. They sulked for a while and the slugs had a go at them. When warmer weather arrived they took off to give a dozen large boilings for the two of us before the outdoor beans were ready. Cobra is a wonderful bean and it grew very well.

This year the equivalent young beans are still sulking. Will they survive until warm weather comes? It’s all trial and error!
I write these posts in advance. In this case the beans were sulking too long and I sowed some more. Now in warmer weather they are chasing each other roof wise!

The beans on the right were sown nearly a month later! In a different season the first sowing might have raced away and in another would be dead!
I never do the same things twice! My indoor sugar peas in the higher picture were eaten by the mice and the re-sowings this time in a seed tray are just starting cropping

More on commercial research
I started this post by saying that any attempt to do real research and to do a genuine trial by gardeners such as me is a complete waste of time as the results will never be statistically valid and will always be seriously flawed rendering them worthless. I wonder how much we should trust ‘real research’.

Perhaps not very much! As I have hinted commercial research is not really geared to the very different needs of we amateurs. Commercial growing is a completely different ball game.

Horticultural research is not done for amateurs
We live in a society where researchers are paid by results. We live in a world where vested interests want to persuade you. We hear from the media much conflicting information based on so called research.
Trials can be designed in such a way as to give almost predictable conclusions that will serve a vested interest. Researchers are not required to publish negative results they don’t like. So called ‘black swans’ are rejected. Neutral conclusions go unreported because they are not very sexy. Worse some research receives world wide publicity and yet is based on very few replications and has never been reproduced by a disinterested party.

The kind of horticultural research about which I am particularly doubting are those trials that are exclusively laboratory based. I am particularly dubious when chemicals are directly applied to a plant or an animal when testing for safety in use. Things need to be verified in real field situations.
I am also suspicious where genome studies on plants are used predictively without really growing them.
I asked scientist friend Peter which research I should respect. He replied that I should enquire who is paying.

One final irony. The most dubious claims for new ‘wonder products’ are made without any research at all. The actual facts get in the way
David Grimes in full flood
Gene McCarthy writes about how new hybrids stabilise
I bury newspaper
My own trial lacked credibility
My post about black swans had some of Cathi’s very nice pictures

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