Friday, 20 April 2018

Late addition, try Anemone nemorosa, the wood anemone and replant it now

Opens to the sunshine
I might have added this to my last post about naturalising dwarf bulbs but it was getting a bit long….. and Anemone nemorosa isn’t a real bulb!

Peter Williams is wild about good garden plants growing  er - in the wild, and even more so native plants good for the garden. Remember his picture last year of a huge clump of Dicentra formosa in Ray Wood at Castle Howard that had grown undisturbed for forty years.

Enough to excite Peter. How did it get there, a wild clump by the road?
In this case he took a ten minute detour on our way to the lecture at the Yorkshire Arboretum also at Castle Howard. He wanted some pictures and when he had previously spotted the wood anemone growing wild by the road he did not have his camera. (no matter the iPhone in his pocket).
Not as big as the drift of dicentra it was a strong growing clump of a square metre or so. Completely isolated, where had it come from? From a stray rhizome or was it the site of an ancient wood?

Wild at the roadside
If you buy Anemone nemorosa as an alpine in a pot it looks such a delicate plant. The nurseryman had no doubt potted up a tiny sprouting rhizome. Get it going in the garden and if it were not so wonderful it would be a bit of a thug,
It has a very strong almost woody fibrous strong root-like rhizome and after a year or three a new small plant will make a very fine garden statement every early April.

I have been transplanting my own Anemone nemorosa this week!
Even though my soil is very wet and the plants are coming into flower. Indeed on my sandy soil plenty of moisture is needed to get it going

One of my clumps has been under water since Christmas. See where I took out a spadeful.....
...... and teased out divisions and here it is the very next day in my new project of growing in grass
It is a really tough plant. I originally propagated mine along with a single-flowered peony from the only surviving garden plants in the then overgrown Bolton Percy cemetery forty years ago.

Original clump in Bolton Percy cemetery. I persuaded Jackie Giles to divide and plant a couple of spadefuls yesterday. The soft undug very wet clay soil was excellent for slitting the pieces in
This year one of my now large clumps has been flooded for three months and is now flowering as normal. Last week I transplanted some pieces all over the place. I have even enthused the team who now maintain Bolton Percy to do the same from the original cemetery clump.

Some garden cultivars and similar species
Thank you Peter Williams for these

Peter's posh totty

Peter Williams' clump of Dicentra formosa at Castle Howard
Last week's post about naturalising bulbs
A very early blog effort where I jump on wet soil
From the ridiculous to the sublime about gardening when it is wet

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Naturalising dwarf bulbs

Mainly about bulbs such as scilla and chinodoxa that seed themselves around

I love rampant mixtures
I adore all those spring bulbs that take up permanent residence in the garden. I have written extensively about establishing narcissus, tulips, hyacinths, bluebells and snowdrops. My recent post about establishing bulbs in Lyndi’s field is almost my most popular ever!

A handful of anemone bulbs in Lyndi's uncultivated field emerge in their first year
My purpose today is to concentrate on those bulbs that as a result of prolific seeding and given time will cover the garden with sheets of glorious colour

White in this case
I am sorry to repeat myself that success in naturalisation comes readily to the none digger. It is he who has glorious carpets of Cyclamen hederifolium and coum. Bulbs go dormant  and get forgotten out of season. Only the very most vigorous subjects withstand careless disturbance. (Although I might mention Peter Williams mistakenly stirred around his Dicentra cucullaria and now has a magnificent clump and  I know of a commercial grower who lightly rotatavates his snowdrops in summer every few years to propagate them).

Undisturbed clean soil, gravel mulched zones and light grassland are the places for naturalisation. Coarse grass is too competitive for most bulbs but thin grass in woodland might work very well. So too where in the popular fashion low grassland fertility is maintained for ‘wild flowers’. I must admit such starvation goes against the grain with me and this year I lightly scattered fertiliser over my Cyclamen coum!

Happy accident
Some of you will know of my current enthusiasm for creating pure stands of Chewings Fescue grass. In such swards I expect naturalised bulbs I have recently planted to do very well.
Although my emphasis today is to encourage those bulbs that self seed almost all bulbs are best first established as a result of vegetative propagation. With a sufficiently generous budget you can plant thousands of bulbs and cover the ground in a single season! 

A field of this double snowdrop must have arisen by vegetative propagation
It is much more satisfying to let natural division and where possible self seeding increase your stock every year. The most beautiful stands take decades to establish. Some famous collections of snowdrops have been there for more than a century. Although snowdrops are an example of bulbs that can seed themselves you will find most stands are at least in part genetically uniform. This indicates vegetative spread with the help of rabbits and other natural disturbance. Crowded snowdrops (and bluebells) get pushed to the surface and nature does the rest.

Certain bulbs eventually make generous crowded clumps that will only spread more widely with the help of the gardener. After several years I would encourage you to lift and replant them

This fritillaria is far too densely crowded and is best spread in clusters over a much greater area. Do it today 
Growing bulbs from seed

Prolific self sown seedlings
Peter Williams' aconites have self seeded in his path.
It would take a very long time to establish drifts of bulbs from a seedsman. Packets are small and some of the seed doubtfully viable. Never-the-less it is a fun way to introduce rare plants to your garden

Scilla biflora seeds very freely
What I envisage today is large quantities of fresh viable seeds produced in situ and naturally cast around. If you are lucky enough to have access to free seeding subjects you can also either scatter seed yourself or get your bulbs started by sowing in a pot or seed tray

Winter aconite freely self seeds
The list of bulbs that seed around freely is not a long one but the few that do are very worthwhile. There are several species and distinct cultivars of scilla and chinodoxa that cover the ground with flower after just a few years. My own personal favourite is Scilla biflora, readily available as bulbs to get your stock going it is extremely prolific. Spread by ants many gardeners have Cyclamen neapolitanum all over and if it likes you Cyclamen coum too. If you are very lucky you might get winter aconite going. It does not take many years for you to curse an excess of bluebells! You will need to be very patient for Fritillaria meleagris to clothe  your wet areas; not so chives which grows like a weed.
Beware real weeds such as ransomes and certain alliums!

The best naturalised Cyclamen coum I know is on a clay soil
Scillas naturalised at Anglsey Abbey
The secrets to successful self sowing is to allow your bulbs to completely die down without cutting or tidying debris away, to have excellent weed control, accurate recognition of seedling bulbs and not stirring the soil after the tiny new bulbs die down. 

Collect seed of Acis autumnalis and sow in a seed tray or divide clumps in the green and replant immediately
There are several bulbs that set fertile seed but do not successfully self sow. There might be serendipity factors such as insufficient seed volume, variable weather conditions and excessively dry soil. Such seeds are best collected and sown in a seed tray. I do this for fritillarias and Narcissus romeuxii and in the past cyclamen for eventual sale on my open day. Peter Williams has been very successful with acis which flowered in its second year.
My own method is to sow up to 200 ripe seeds in a seed tray immediately on collection and place them outside or in my cold greenhouse. Almost invariably they require the winter cold and germinate in late Winter or Spring.
Initially in the unheated greenhouse they complete their first season undisturbed in their tray.

Vegetative propagation

I started my Scilla biflora by planting bulbs which freely self seeded
Lets face it many bulbs spread best by vegetative propagation. Many bulbs, corms and tubers are very cheap to buy. Take Anemone blanda. Provided you buy and plant small handfuls of bulbs at the very start of their sales season and after soaking for 24 hours you will have attractive clumps in their first year. After not very many years natural vegetative spread will give you lovely late spring ground cover all over your borders.
(Researching this post I had found a report on the net that Anemone blanda did not self sow. Peter Williams marched me round to his own garden and pointed to hundreds of newly germinated self sown seedlings)


I took out two large spadefuls and immediately replanted as two large clumps to make the drift larger
I teased this spadeful of fritillary apart and planted small clumps
The double sin of transplanting in full flower and into wet soil
Most dwarf bulbs can without check be lifted and planted ‘in the green’. I do this at any time but it might be best just as they emerge or as they die down. This year in a new project I have been lifting and dividing scillas, chinodoxas, snowdrops, and eranthis in full flower. 
With immediate replanting within the garden dormant bulbs can be replanted at any time as long as you can find them! Not so for such as dry bulbs of snowdrops or cyclamen from the garden centre

Chinodoxa has done particularly well this year

Winter aconite brightens a February day

Dogtooth violets thrive in Peter Williams's light woodland
Credit most of the pictures are from Peter Williams
Links You will find bulb seed in Chiltern's catalogue
My first stop for first class bulbs in quantity is Parkers Wholesale - but not so sure about their plants

Use my search box to find my articles about daffodils, snowdrops, hyacinths, ipheons and acis.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Plants dehydrate the soil

Reeds grow anywhere - as long as there is plenty of water
I caught the last bit of a Radio 4 item that mentioned the use of reeds in wetland restoration. My grasshopper mind immediately went back to our student visits to the Zuiderzee  in Holland and the story of how huge tracts of land were claimed from shallow sea.The first stage in land reclamation after huge barriers had excluded the sea and the seawater had been pumped away was the planting of many square miles of reeds. For the first two years they sucked water out of the saturated sand before crops of brassicas were planted to continue soil formation.
Many of you will be aware of reeds powerful root action in water purification and their ability to transfer air through their soft tissues into the ground.

My pondering quickly moved on to an old New Scientist article about how researchers had been surprised that many peat bogs dated back a very long time but usually not more than 4000 years. Now I know there has been massive climate changes over such time but the researchers had concluded that the initial bog formation coincided with the felling of large tracts of trees as land started to be farmed. Certain sites where the drainage was impeded retained too much water and peat bogs had formed. Up to that time the trees had kept the land dry.

It was a small step for me to blog about evaporation and transpiration’s significance in gardens

Will planting trees dry out waterlogged soil?

As a result of a blocked drain and a very wet Winter part of my garden has been flooded for three months. The trees are no help at all
My preamble might lead you to expect I am going to recommend planting trees to dehydrate an excessively wet soil. Unfortunately this is not usually effective although if you do have a wet site planting water tolerant trees might look very nice. The problem is that water loss from deciduous trees is very small when the trees have no leaves. There is less evaporation when the weather is cold and there are not many evergreens that grow in bogs. Not much help when most drainage problems occur in Winter.
Most people’s drainage issues arise when their garden receives excess water from higher ground. Any puny amounts of water extracted by leafless trees in Winter is immediately replaced as more water moves in.

It's a different story in Summer
Where planting might help the situation is on sites where drainage is impeded but little excess water is received from elsewhere. It seems to me that when a small wood goes into the Winter with a large soil-water deficit as a result of Summer dehydration then Winter water-logging is sometimes avoided.

Might it also be that root action of vegetation helps improve actual drainage? 

The problem of soil dehydration under trees in Summer

There is plenty of moisture and sufficient light in a deciduous wood in Spiring 
This is a problem for the gardener when it is too dry for underplanted vegetation to grow - and any irrigation is sucked up by the trees.

One solution to the challenge of a dry deciduous wood is to grow plenty of bulbs and Spring flowering plants and write off the Summer! In Spring the soil is wet and the dark canopy of leaves is yet to come. Fortunately most of us do not have to contend with a wood and just a few trees might actually increase our year round planting opportunities.

Bluebells love woodland
Some gardeners find themselves under a heavy canopy of trees and have no control over them. In Summer it’s not so much the shade being the problem but the bone dry soil. In a smaller garden for the driest places it might be good idea to grow in containers to ensure your water goes to the plants and not to the trees! The actual shade will limit how often you need to water.

Do shrubs and trees over the years outgrow their water supply?

My cornus now struggles in dry weather as the Swedish birch and the metasequoia get bigger 
Young shrubs and saplings establish themselves when roots spread very many more metres than you might imagine to find water. They will often take water from under buildings and roads where extracted water fails to be replenished by Winter rain. As the trees become very much bigger they demand more water and new roots have no new wet places to go.
If the gardener takes no action such as extraction or removing new growth by pruning, severe competition for water leads to the death of weaker specimens. It might not be obvious that drought was the cause when they seem to die of pest or disease to which they became increasingly vulnerable.
My own wedding cake tree Cornus controversa succumbs to stress from my now rather large metasequoia and Swedish birch and is only kept alive by letting the hosepipe run freely in very dry weather. Were I to remove one of the two larger trees my cornus would thrive on its own.

Grass competition has held my tree back for fifteen years now. I love my dwarf tree
Grass also dehydrates the soil and is a powerful competitor.
Inexperienced gardeners plant trees and shrubs in their lawn and wonder why they fail to grow. Green grass has sucked the soil dry. I have written about this phenomenon before. Ironic really as I am now rather keen on growing wild flowers and garden plants in stands of pure fescue grass when I make garden features modelled on meadows. I completely failed in a previous post to convince readers that ground cover planting does not conserve water - the reverse, it dehydrates

Although grass competes for water it does provide cultural and visual values

The elephant in the room to this post is that a knowledge of transpiration and the effect of a large leaf area is a fundamental plank when teaching students about irrigation. It is extremely difficult to convince them that evaporative water loss is a meteorological phenomenon that depends most on levels of sunshine, air temperature, wind speed and humidity. 
My previous writings about this were received with scorn.

My robinia receives little direct sunshine and in Summer usually two thorough waterings each week suffice. However on a hot windy day it will transpire more than a gallon
My former boss, PK Wilmott was renowned as a great horticultural educationalist. He said the hardest thing to teach students was how to properly water. He claimed to need a couple of years.

I have written in more detail about ground cover not conserving water
Lots of thoughts about roots finding water and nutrients but rather boring
I have recently heavily edited both these old posts

Read how part of Holland was claimed from the sea

I would love to receive your own experiences of trees dehydrating the soil

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Orchids earn their keep but don’t expect miracles

My pals ‘phals’  
I talk about how how to grow phalaenopsis and end in a panic when I discover scale insect at home

Expect two months of flower from a single spike
I feel a guilty twinge when Peter admires Brenda's lovely orchids when she only bought them last week. 
Now let’s get this straight, no longer does Brenda water and feed her orchids. She has a man who does that. (And we don’t argue that way). Once a blue moon she goes over them removing dead leaves and flowers and sticking sticks in. She frequently scolds me over spilt water and is always first to spot any glistening honeydew from a sneaky scale insect before I rub it away.
Despite this uneven division of labour our conservatory always boasts several lovely orchids in full flower and has done so continuously for nye on eighteen years (other than that time when in January we went to Madeira and failed to leave the heat on).

In recent years I have learnt much from Robert Pavlis, blogger and orchid grower extraordinaire
I claim our orchids die slowly! They arrive on our tables as pristine young plants if someone else buys them or otherwise as healthy dishevelled specimens with dead flowers bought at half price. They invariably like us and usually thrive. If we don’t don’t get three cycles of flowering we feel we have been cheated. Sometimes we get more. But they don’t last for ever, my longest is four years. Our conservatory is not quite perfect for orchids but as a living and dining area suits us very well.

Brenda's display
I understand ‘real’ house plants are suddenly trendy. I have always claimed that if I stayed out of date long enough I would be at the forefront of gardening innovation and this is yet another example. I welcome the fact that young people are wanting to actually grow plants in their apartments and do not regard ‘house plants’ as an extension of cut flowers and destined to die.

I write about ‘bog standard’ orchids today. These are mainly phalaenopsis or one of numerous multiple hybrids between them and similar genera.’Phals’ are sold everywhere, at garden centres, do-it-yourself stores, florists and in your regular supermarket. There are now a wonderful range of hybrids sufficiently robust to survive the perils of marketing and which last several months in the average home.

Phalaenopsis have undergone an image transformation. Fifty years ago they were very expensive exotic prima donnas only grown in very warm greenhouses and beyond the financial reach of the average person. Now as a result of central heating, double glazing  and advancement of modern commercial production they are the cheapest and easiest orchids to grow.
The good news is that these orchids will last several years in the home given luck, skill and attention. When well grown they are superb!

Key points about phalaenopsis cultivation
Light and temperature

Most homes will have positions where phalaenopsis hybrids will grow. You just need to find them. They enjoy direct sunshine but not too much of it unless you gradually acclimatise them. Better a few hours in the morning or late in the day. Too many hours of full Summer midday sun can be detrimental. In contrast they love the sunniest of places in Winter. 
We are lucky with our conservatory. Our plants grow about a foot behind sparkling clean east facing glass windows (no curtains) and enjoy full morning light until about noon when as a result of an adjacent extension there is no direct sunshine for the rest of the day.
Ideally phalaeonopsis like the same warm uniform indoor conditions that we do. It’s the fluctuations and drafts that gets us. Orchid’s main vulnerabilities are very low night temperatures or turning off the heat in Winter when you go away!
Fortunately Brenda subscribes to the modern idea that to leave the heat on at night is the best way to manage your heating system.

You are more likely to kill your phals with too much water rather than too little. New gardeners please note too much water means watering too often or leaving your plants standing in water. It's not about the good practice of giving a thorough amount of water on a single occasion.

Thick water absorptive roots above and below ground
Although not recommended phalaenopsis can go months without water. The roots have a thick water absorptive grey or green epidermis of velamin cells. Nature has designed them to store water and withstand drought!
Water your phals when the roots get dry. Learn to recognise this from the feel of the compost or it’s weight! Just gently lift their pot out of the outer display container to judge its weight! You will soon learn and eventually you will just know with only an occasional check!

The best way to water is to soak them in the sink. I am afraid this is too hard work for me. 
If I am feeling righteous I bring a bowl of water to our display and individually dunk the inner plastic pots, splashing water over the rim to ensure all the roots are wetted. Ours are displayed in outer orchid ceramic pots which have a low standing rim. Surplus water just drains down into the ceramic. 

Selection of 'inner' orchid pots
Outer ceramic with low ridge. Any retained water should be below the inner pot
More often I just carefully water from a small can spout. I do occasionally check water is not accumulating in the ceramic.
A little water below root level in the ceramic is not a particularly bad thing but makes no significant contribution to humidity. Similarly spraying leaves with water is not only a waste of time but intermittent wetting and drying is not good for them. 
Orchids do like humidity - but in the house we don’t.

Much to my surprise I do not find myself needing to water much more often in Summer than in Winter. Under my own conditions I usually need to water about every two weeks.


Scatter on the surface and let subsequent waterings wash in
Slow growing plants such as orchids need little fertiliser to sustain them but the gardener should not  shy away from feeding. Mine get a pinch of YaraMila general fertiliser every six weeks and all year round. Do not waste your money buying special orchid fertiliser.

Orchids do need very open composts They can be quite simple based solely on bark chips or coconut husks. Many commercial packeted orchid composts are of dubious value inferior to an informal mixture made up by yourself. There is some merit in a thorough repotting every two years when all the numerous dead roots are removed. I have vivid memories watching orchid potting on a commercial nursery fifty years ago. The roots were being viciously torn apart with sticks!

Should you opt to repot your orchids every two years these are suitable ingredients
In my own wet garden I grow my own sphagnum moss

The curse of brown scale

The unsightly brown dead scales cover living nymphs. Living straw coloured nymphs are on the right
For us the only pest of any significance is brown scale. If you buy an infected plant throw it away! The ugly dead scale’s body protects numerous live nymphs ready to crawl all over. They excrete copious shiny honeydew. You cannot not recognise it. 
Look for the scales everywhere. Particularly insidious is on the flower spike when the honeydew fouls the leaves below and the sticky liquid sparkles in the sunshine.
It can be controlled by systemic insecticides, the kind marketed for houseplants but you still have the mess.

Roger clears up

I was once asked whether writing my blog lead to neglecting my plants. Quite the contrary it concentrates the mind! When I inspected my supposedly clean orchids after a year of no particular attention there was brown scale to be found. Fortunately the infection was light and sporadic. It is a year or two since I used Provado vine weevil killer as a control.
Brenda what have you been doing? The collection needed a make over. Together with my watering gear and a small hard-back sponge I scrubbed the leaves clean. I washed everywhere, fingernails are particularly good to scrape off the scales. Fortunately the green stalks were clean. 
You can’t get the staff, there were part cut back old stalks and dead leaves to be trimmed.

This might prove to be the worst advice I have ever given! Is there a danger I have spread tiny nymphs around? The water did have a tiny squirt of the soft soap I use to wash my hands. The leaves look shiny and pristine. I can always scrub them again.
It's now two weeks since I wrote these words, they are looking good and are welcoming the lengthening days and recent sunshine.
You can go to more authoritative advice from Robert Pavlis 

You can read about my other pals in our conservatory
Calamondin orange

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