Sunday, 27 March 2016

It has been mooted that agriculture might receive a biological transformation

Mainly musing about micro organisms

My attitude to personal hygiene is to keep my immune system primed and avoid the use of antibiotics unless they are essential. I think it likely that my very good health is in part due to my lifetime exposure to the open air and the soil.
I only wash my hair if I have a bonfire. Last week Brenda’s hair dresser was ecstatic about my hair’s condition. Perhaps she was being kind! The mixture of natural oils and  beneficial bacteria do the cleansing for me.

Considering my attitudes it is not surprising that by normal standards my garden hygiene leaves much to be desired. I have written of my blasé attitudes such as not washing pots, using unsterile soil, my cavalier approach to damping off relying almost entirely on good light and ventilation and, not least, my habit of leaving organic matter scattered on the soil surface.
Don’t get me wrong there are some aspects of garden hygiene where in avoiding garden pest and diseases I am utterly ruthless. If any new plant shows any sign of glasshouse whitefly, scale insect, vine weevil. red spider mite or mealy bug it goes straight in the bin! In consequence none of these afflictions ever concern me!

With modern realization that the biome around us plays an essential part in our own health and survival, and with such startling discoveries that as we walk around we carry far more genes of microorganisms than our own, it is not surprising that the world is starting to reconsider how previously unrecognised beneficial bacteria and fungi and even virus influence plants. Perhaps especially virus considering how frequently in the past they have been responsible for natural gene transfer.

I have recently been reading about the raising of mouthwatering amounts of cash by ‘crowd funding’ to propel agricultural research in this microbial direction. There is hype of worldwide yields of agricultural crops expanding by ten per cent or more.
Such expectations have in some quarters been sceptically received. Not least my own, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if yields were in this way extended.
Or perhaps not if it leads to immoral industry patenting genes and holding farmers and growers to ransom.

Harnessing microorganisms to benefit the garden is not something new. We are all familiar with nitrogen fixing bacteria that live in root nodules and - less significantly in the UK - nitrogen fixing bacteria that live free in the soil.
Mycorrhizal fungi are in popular flavour and are hugely significant. There are already misguided gardeners who buy them in a packet!

All the above embolden me to muse even further than I have previously dared about my own attitude to microorganisms’s significance in gardening!

In an earlier post I have presented the reason why I hardly ever have damping off disease fungus is that I don’t force my seedlings in poor light and I give them plenty of ventilation. Not for me sweaty disease fomenting conditions created by covering  seedlings with glass or plastic. 
I have not dared float my notion that when gardeners strive for sterility in their water and compost they invariably fail. Their partial success creates a void in populations of previously mutually competing soil micro organisms. In such conditions lack of competition gives notorious and aggressive fungi such as Pythium de baryanum a completely free run through your seed tray felling your plants.
It is not a new concept that an invading micro organism goes through sterile soil like the proverbial ‘dose of salts’. Traditional commercial glasshouse growers steam sterilised their soil principally for the control of soil born pest and diseases. A much appreciated ‘spin off’ was the extra nitrogen released by the elevated populations of the resistant nitrate releasing bacteria that had now no competition. This so called ‘nutrient build up’ was just at planting time when the soil was still warm and the plants needed extra nutrition.

Ken Thompson recently wrote about research in adding sugar to soil to enhance microbial populations and increase their competition to reduce nutrients left available to plants. This could potentially be relevant to reducing fertility for systems where plants might be naturalised in grassland. The technique certainly worked in decreasing fertility and reducing grass growth. Unfortunately it did not seem to lead to extra wild flowers.

I will be writing about Peter’s restoration project next month

I recently visited a site of an old slag heap with microbiologist Peter Williams where his research had guided its restoration. Nitrogen fixing bacteria elevated soil nitrogen when wild white clover was sown. 
Apparently you can enhance nitrogen fixation by innoculating nitrogen fixers with the right strain of the bacteria called rhizobium. Apparently Peter was able to call upon some of the two hundred strains then held at Rothamsted Research Station. In Peter’s view although the nitrogen fixation worked very well the ‘special strains’ did not seem to make much difference. 
Peter, like me, believes that adding mycorrhiza to the garden from a packet is a complete waste of time. Perhaps adding mycorrhizal spores to a fungus-hungry pit heap is one of the few occasions when inoculation is worthwhile? I asked Peter about this. He replied that in those days mycorrhiza were not fashionable. He observed that any self sown plant he had ever found on an unrestored pit heap was awash with native mycorrhiza. Research projects at that time on plants in the process of restoration in colliery slag always showed up abundant mycorrhiza.

No dig and micro organisms
It is not specifically microorganisms but all soil life that is beneficially affected by minimum cultivation. I maintain none diggers and also all those other gardeners who provide good growing conditions have plants less susceptible to pest and disease. 
I suggest the balance of soil animals and micro organisms have fundamental benefits to plant health and soil fertility. 
Soil life includes nematodes, fungi, bacteria, single celled organisms and invertebrates such as insects, mites and worms. Some might be pests and diseases which damage our plants. Some will be beneficial as already mooted. Many seem to be of little concern to the gardener. All are in dynamic ever changing equilibrium. They are a firmament  of aggressive competition, harmony and symbiosis. I suggest the disruptions to a natural soil balance caused by a gardener’s interventions, not least excessive cultivation seem to me to work in favour of pest and disease.

My on going project planting Cathi’s new border without cultivation. Stirring the soil by cultivation encourages aerobic bacteria that degrade organic matter. It is a common feature of no dig plots that their soil organic matter is naturally high.

Should gardeners worry about their soil micro organisms?
I have previously written specifically about the significance of soil bacteria and how their populations vary by orders of magnitude caused by such things as temperatures, waterlogged conditions and drought. A gardeners’ activities and the weather have significant effects on soil micro-organisms.
It is unfortunately becoming trendy to attempt to manage gardens by managing the bacteria. It might be very interesting for our United States’ friends to attend a day course at a laboratory offering a course on bacteria but in terms of improving their garden it is a complete waste of time. Suddenly many new ways are being discovered to fleece  gardeners of their money.

Following the sign will do more for your garden than attending a course on bacteria. On the other hand learning about bacteria is absolutely fascinating 

Yes, a gardener’s activities do influence bacteria but usually not in easily predictable ways. Any changes that occur are incidental to good growing techniques practiced for the sake of the plants.
For example you do not look to good drainage for the benefit of the bacteria; you do so for the good of your plants. In improving your drainage there are many reasons why your plants will grow better. One of them might be reduction in numbers of sometimes undesirable anaerobic bacteria

The main deleterious effect of poor drainage is lack of a root’s oxygen supply. Initially bacteria will deplete the soil water of dissolved oxygen and then those that are obligate aerobes will die. Two weeks after this picture drainage has taken excess water away and the aerobic bacteria are again thriving

Peter Williams offered me this story about how bacteria colonise a previously sterile material. His early research was on pulverised fuel ash from Yorkshire coal power stations. At that time millions of tons of the stuff was an acute embarrassment and his research involved using it for agricultural production when it was ‘lagooned' as a very thick cover over the ground. Hugely alkaline with a pH more than nine, bacteria will make many improvements. Useful bacteria will ‘fix’ nitrogen, help dissolve otherwise unavailable phosphate, glue particles together and break down fresh organic debris. (In respect of gluing particles in those days we knew nothing about glomalin).
Research from Russia had suggested inoculation of bacteria might be worthwhile. Extensive UK research was done to investigate this theory and found no measurable affect of artificial inoculation.
No inoculation was done in Peter’s project either, just sound management practice. The bacteria came in on their own.

Temperatures and water has huge effects on the numbers and proportions of soil bacteria

Many woodland plants would not be there at all without mycorrhiza

If in extreme argumentative mood one might observe that in laboratory conditions healthy plants can be grown without the presence of any micro-organisms at all. Most natural changes in your soil micro-life occur on their own and in most cases in practical terms don’t really matter.

I am probably too old to discover whether agriculture is going to go through a biological revolution and whether all those investors get their returns.

Relevant previous postings
My thoughts on not washing pots and damping off disease
My main piece about soil bacteria
Why I think not digging is good for plant health

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Buying plants from Japan

Failing to grow Dicentra peregrina yet again?

Naked quality plants from Japan
My weekly whim, current happenings in my garden
Whenever I have received pristine healthy Dicentra peregrina from nurserymen I have marveled at their skill and cursed my inability to keep their plants alive! Peter has let me into a little secret; they were probably bought wholesale from Japan.

Dicentra peregrina is a difficult plant. In Japan they would seem to find it very easy. It all about climate! The plant likes bright cool humidity. Not an easy combination. It must never dry out. In it’s natural habitat at 1500m in its home in Japan it grows with high rainfall in well drained basaltic pumice soil. It hates our extreme  Summer heatwaves!

Peter has discovered this marvelous Japanese nursery which retails high quality rare plants at very competitive prices. Their very sturdy plants arrive with clean washed roots ready to go straight in your own compost.  It’s just as easy as ordering plants grown in the UK. The firm gives friendly service with your e-mail returned in a couple of minutes.  There is no problem whatsoever with immediate pay pal payment. Their plant list is easy to follow with perfect and rather charming English! They do all the administration and include all import documents with your delivery. Service is prompt and dispatch is almost immediate. Within a week of your order you will be potting your very fine plants!
It is quite a thrill to hear that after just a few hours from dispatch your parcel tracking service announces they have just reached Tokyo!
Perfect parcels

Now for the bad news, they are at the end of their season and you will have to wait to order in Autumn! You can still visit their website to wet your appetite. Their prices are in yen but these days your bank payment procedures do all the work for you. Add 50% to the catalogue cost to cover their documentation and transport.
The prices you will pay will still be much less than you would pay for the same plants bought in the UK. You will know the exact price before consigning your payment.
Peter was so thrilled with his first order he has made another and his pictures illustrate his own plants and the dicentras he has purchased for me.
Peter even potted my plants for me in his own perfect compost
Plants of the first order

Last year I grew this allegedly easy hybrid of Dicentra peregrina. One of two survived last season and I am eagerly watching whether the dormant plant in my unheated greenhouse is going to grow
I see from the Yuzwa - Engei website that there will be a 3000 yen charge next year for the appropriate CITES documentation. This is about £18 for an order.  I don’t think this represents an overall price increase except on a very small order.

As holder of the National dicentra collection I have written several posts about dicentra.  To find them just click the dicentra links in my theme column. (Themes come up at about four a time!)

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Thank you Marianne Majerus

Her pictures of Bolton Percy Cemetery


It is not often that a famous lady, many times Photographer of the Year, visits your garden. Twenty years ago Marianne spent a whole weekend in Bolton Percy. You can see all of the pictures she took if you visit her website. What a thrill it was to see her fantastic photograph of the cemetery garden as a double page spread in the Sunday Express colour supplement!

This is the second of my series Every Picture Tells a Story which highlight each of four pictures of Bolton Percy cemetery that hang on our wall.
I contacted Marianne via her Facebook page when she accepted my offer of befriendment. I asked her whether I might picture my picture of her picture - my original acetate. She could do better than that and sent me a ‘light box’ to choose several originals with permission to publish. They are of course copyright and must not be reproduced.

Her visit was a thrilling experience. What a lovely lady and I have very happy memories of her stay. So focussed - she was up at six in the morning to capture the optimum light, she spent many hours taking photos. Marianne, we really enjoyed your company.

The first picture today is very similar to the one on our wall. It looks down the cemetery to the hedge at the bottom before visitors turn right and then left  to view round the corner. It features wonderful Geranium macrorhizum that without any help completely suppresses any seedling weed. Not only does the geranium enthusiastically spread vegetatively it also sometimes self sows a few seeds. As a result of seedling variability I have several gorgeous different pink shades.
An unremarkable but steady performer, the yellow green spikes of Heuchera ‘Green Finch’ has graced the garden for the last forty years.
The ubiquitous variegated honesty is there on the left. 
Right at the back in front of the dark yew is the green variegated umbellifer called Alexanders. This used to thrill me when it self seeded each year. Less so after walking in East Anglia where it grew all over as a weed in the fields!



I used to use this slide in my lectures to illustrate the beauty of stone in a garden. In an old cemetery there is no need for any extra ’hard landscape’. Solomon’s Seal is a good plant for drought. Bolton Percy is a dry place and their are plenty of dehydrating trees.
The very handsome veratrum came from a former employer!  Marianne has captured the beauty of the stone and the exquisite balance of the ‘Green Finch’ flowers with those of the Solomon’s Seal.


The santolina had been recently pruned. Its blue glaucousness merges well with the stone. 
Although the picture does not show it, the somewhat tender Lavatera ‘Barnsley’ backs on to a protective south facing wall. This tender shrub survived with annual March pruning for thirty years before its demise. We must plant it again! Regular readers will know that I now have a wonderful team of helpers. The cemetery has never looked so tidy. I call them the ‘C’ team.
The golden foliage is Spiraea ‘Gold Flame’. It is pruned back hard every second year to rejuvenate and keep strong.
When I lived in Bolton Percy my maintenance was about an hour every week of the year. It was more intimate then than is now possible with my now monthly visit. The white wild  garlic (pictured below) has got out of hand in the last twenty years!



The dark green rugose leaves around the well-preserved tombstone are those of Stachys macrantha. I was surprised on my very first open day how much it was admired before any sign of the later lovely spikes of purple flowers. The orange flowers of Helianthemum ‘Henfield Brilliant’ are gorgeous when they open in the sunshine. No longer there in the cemetery it still thrives in my own garden. I must remember in Autumn to stick in some bundles of new cuttings.


It’s embarrassing when I cannot remember what I have previously planted. I don’t recognise the fine leaved plant that looks like fennel nor the red flower that looks like a dahlia! Perhaps you have a suggestion? 
You might have noticed by now that I am rather fond of the intensely orange Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’. Not only is it strong and reliable, it makes a nice green rounded dome after flowering and remains so for the rest of the Summer until in the Autumn it turns a warm Autumn yellow.
You might notice the golden box plant which I seem to remember is Buxus sempervirens suffruticosa. It’s much bigger now and I prune it as lightly as I am able when using my hedge trimmer. I refuse to make round topiary balloons.
It does take some effort not to allow the Pheasant’s Eye grass to take over. The yellow bog iris thrives with the poor Winter drainage (Nineteenth century farmers did not give their best land when churches needed to expand their over flowing churchyards).


The Rosa ‘Nevada’ was raised from rooted cuttings. Twenty years ago it was surviving  and thriving despite the extending shadow of the fast growing Leyland cypress - off  picture - that twenty years earlier, for my sins, I had personally rooted and planted. The rose is now in severe decline but the rose’s revival is promised as the forty foot high Leyland is about to be chopped down!
The lovely Abutilon vitifolium is sadly short lived but if I am sufficiently observant young seedlings take on the mantle. The grand daughter of this fine plant has in 2016 just passed away.

Once again thank you Marianne for your lovely pictures. I dared not ask for any more but if readers would like to admire further photographs they can go to her website and insert ‘Bolton Percy’ in the search box and find forty five.

This is my first post in this series.
This is my report on the work of the C team!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Very early large trumpet daffodil

Identification required

My Weekly whim
I need to enroll my readers today to identify this very early daffodil. Typical of me I bought it from Parkers in 2001 and instantly forgot its name. I seem to remember that it was an old commercial cut flower variety and at the time I feared it might be vulgar and blousy.

It is my very favourite now and comes into flower ridiculously early. This year it came into magnificent flower in the third week in January and although now a little bedraggled eight weeks later the flowers are still there. This Winter was wet and warm. A commercial cut flower variety would tend to have a low cold requirement to enable early cutting. I chose to plant it because it would give me an early start to my daffodil season. It never fails me. It flowers profusely and without support withstands wind and snow.
By careful choice of early, mid season and late varieties you can have narcissus in flower in the garden right through from January until early May. Each year I achieve more than four months succession.

Note that whilst ‘going over’ a later cultivar at the back is just emerging

No, this isn’t my mystery variety - although I have forgot its name too! Pictured last year, my featured variety is behind this later one and if Brenda comes into the garden it might get dead headed
A much later variety pictured in mid May

Early narcissi seem to last longer because it is colder and perhaps because they fail to achieve pollination (certain plant species set seed as soon as they are pollinated).

If you also have a similar continuity, please explain to your husband – if he is the one who cuts your lawn - that they must not all be mowed back at the same time!

Daffodils and other narcissus are, of the popular bulbs, the ones you go for if your soil is wet in Winter. They like to be moist and are remarkably tolerant to wet places. My mystery variety is planted as clumps in the lawn where the water table is sometimes high. In its first three weeks above ground this year it was standing in water. It dried up a little and without complaint it continued to thrive. Last week we had another series of heavy downpours and it was flooded again. This time it has drained quite quickly and all the succeeding varieties of narcissus are also doing fine.
It was pretty wet in January

The wet hardly held up their progress
Rather bedraggled at the end of their season (in the second wet spell)
Links to my previous daffodil posts
In 2013 I followed my daffodils from emergence to final cutting down

It’s my favourite variety and has been undisturbed for fifteen years
But what's its name?

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Gardens for gardeners to visit in Funchal, Madeira

Two secret gardens, a bumpy ride and fabulous orchids

You can sense the island’s fertility when you read the leaves of the palms
Madeira is a wonderful place for gardens and gardeners to go and marvel at healthy native and exotic plants. The vegetation soaks up the sunshine and water. It is a wonderful green island full of exciting trees, plants and flowers.The naturalised vegetation is a wonderful mix of native species and introduced plants. All over the island cultivated plants merge into the wild. Colourful street trees and parkland-planting grace public places

In January the African tulip trees were in flower all over town

And these yellow trees were everywhere
We have just returned home from Madeira and I intend an intermittent series of posts about this holiday destination which might serve to provide some guidance for visiting gardeners.
There are plenty of guides on the net which outline gardens  for tourists to go to. There are very few that properly inform tourists who are also keen gardeners or plants-people. I intend to layout my Madeira posts to help folk on holiday to find the right places!

My two gardens today qualify as 'secret' because despite being sorrounded by public places they were void of any other visitors. Both gardens are lovely but perhaps not worth a long detour to get there. If you are in the vacinity they are well worth your while.

The Magic Garden
Turn immediately right on entering the café. It appears to go nowhere
The garden resides between the Magic Cliffs Hotel and and the Magic Café, a ten minutes coastal walk west of the Lido. Most likely you will be drinking one of the sixty kinds of tea served in the café. There is a little unmarked  open side-door that appears to go nowhere but opens like a tardis into a lovely garden. Just like magic!
The garden once expensively landscaped is now barely maintained. Fabulous plants have outgrown their position and are quite magnificent in their unkempt luxuriance.  At the top of the garden is a small museum that commemorates traditional Maderian 'garden houses’.
As you walk up the road you can see that maintenance is minimal
The un-pruned dead stalks of the century plant look like birch trees 

This traditional fencing is remarkably robust
To local residents behind a high wire fence it looks like a prison; to us it held the treasure of Fort Knox 
You might describe this as ‘character’ or merely ‘weedy’
Interesting weeds
The Municipal Garden
You might have taken the spectacular trip to the top of the cable car ride from Funchal centre. Probably to visit the famous Mont Garden or perhaps the very fine historic church or even to slide back down on the fabled traditional road sledge ride - a local cottage industry.
If you walk down the road below the sledge take off point there are several right turns which (I think) turn into this very fine garden. We had been quite lost when coming in the other direction when we emerged from the garden at an entrance about a hundred yards down from the sledge starting point. Our position was confirmed when a sledge slithered by.
Both secret gardens are free!

After admiring the church, walk alongside the Monte garden to the municipal garden beyond
Not sure of the garden’s location we aimlessly wandered down at the back of the church Nossa Senhoro do Monte. A nice walk but not the quickest way
We found the park lower down on the hillside

Although much of the garden is sloping, albeit gently, there is a level walk on the terrace

Agapanthus under the plane tree

We discovered our whereabouts when we emerged from the garden to find the ski road
Mistaken identity
Another secret to our friends who have been to Funchal fifteen times was that there are magnificent mountains at the top of the island! Although sixty euros per person is somewhat expensive, the day out in a 4x4 was well worth the money and the price included the best meal of our holiday in a smart hotel next to the golf course!

The 4x4 followed a levada for several miles and we walked the last two kilometres to a high viewpoint


Espedata is a traditional meal when pieces of steak rubbed in garlic are cooked over burning coals on skewers from a bay tree

Our driver unaware that he was carrying gardeners insisted on several occasions stopping to show us specimens of the local vegetation. His piece de resistance  was to show us a plant hybrid. Brenda knowing my interest in hybrids eagerly anticipated my reaction.
He scrabbled around in a dense cluster of germinating tree seedlings at the side of the road. In triumph he came back clutching what he confidently showed us was a hybrid between a ‘mimosa’ and a eucalyptus. This was quite plausible as eucalyptus and acacias were growing close together.
Alas he was wrong. Had his claim been true I would have been more excited than he could ever imagine! Botanist Mike later informed me that the strange ‘leaves’ at the base of the stem were actually cladodes which are modified stem tissue.

The hybrid that wasn't
When we chatted later Brenda was amazed  that neither Mike or myself had not disillusioned our lovely driver.
We had no wish to spoil his story and probably had we done so he would not have believed us! If he ever drives you up a mountain please don’t tell him.
Orchid gardens 

One of Patrick’s orchids
We previously visited Madeira three years ago. My two posts of most interest to garden visitors to the island are about Patrick and his orchid garden. We had to revisit Boa Vista again if only to hear Patrick’s knowledgable and enthusiastic stories. You don’t often meet a garden owner who is both an Oxford graduate and a Kew diplomate.
The garden is wonderfully atmospheric and delicious refreshments on the lawn that overlooks Funchal is un-commercialised with coffee, tea and genuinely homemade cakes.
The other famous orchid garden - where the greenhouses are gorgeously festooned with epiphytes is Jardim Orquidea. After your essential visit to the botanic garden you will probably be too tired to take the half hour walk to this little Eden. You might take a taxi!

An exquisite jungle at Jardim Orquidea
In its own right the Jardim Orquida is well worth a separate visit where the pristine layout and its provenance and expertise of the owners is renowned.
It might be worth arranging with your taxi driver a price for a round trip from the town centre. Tell him you will need at least an hour at the garden. If you know about orchids you will want to stay all day.

Useful links
Monte Tropical Gardens and Funchal Botanic Gardens. Bloggers Mark and Gaz have recently published fantastic pictures on their blog Alternative Eden. The only trouble is if you see them you will have seen it all! But you still need to go.

These are my own two posts about Patrick and his orchid garden at Boa Vista

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Have you tried Ribes laurifolium?

Weekly whim, an intermittent series of short posts interspersed with my longer ones. Usually matters of current interest in my garden. Today it is of currant interest

Ribes laurifolium is normally considered as hardy but for me it’s straggly habit, that it blows and sometimes breaks in the wind, its propensity not to like Winter-wet conditions, its proneness to dieback and its very early flowers have persuaded me to grow it in pots in my unheated greenhouse. It stands in my nursery in Summer.

I bring it out when it is in full flower in January and display it in otherwise boring corners where it provides colour for the next six weeks

Posed here for the picture, they are actually placed elsewhere in a corner

Being a currant, stuck in pieces root very easily. These were broken branches thrown in last February, one of the four failed. You can see I have been playing with my charcoal as a compost ingredient

The other plants are pittosporum and phlox
The pittosporum is actually growing in a plunged 12 litre pot and needs to be watered much of the year. If minus fifteen centigrade threatens in theory it can be lifted! This has not been necessary for two years now.
This series might be a little whimsical



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