Winter interest shrubs

 

Clivia flowering at our local garden centre

Clivia flowering at our local garden centre. Our own plant died last winter. It had belonged to my Mother-in-Law, so I feel quite guilty about it.

At this time of year, as I have noted before, any flower in the garden is to be celebrated. In our own, there are a few flowers hanging on valiantly after the summer, but not much evidence of what one might call winter flowers. A new garden like ours is like that; we have planted a great deal but there are seasonal ‘holes’ in the flowering schedule and the best way to plug that is to see what is flowering elsewhere. This is not as obvious as it sounds. Other gardens will not have precisely the same microclimate and plants in garden centres and nurseries, where they may have been forced and protected, often flower at very different times to those exposed to the vagaries of the weather. In the absence of flowers, evergreens are useful, particularly those with variegated or colourful leaves.

 

Elaeagnus Limelight

Elaeagnus Limelight

Feeling the need to see a few plants, the gardeners’ equivalent of comfort food, I dropped in on our local garden centre. Working my way through the Christmas tree display and the troughs of bare-rooted fruit trees, I was immediately attracted to a fine batch of Elaeagnus x ebbingei Limelight. Great for hedging, these tough evergreen shrubs are invaluable in the winter when the yellow variegated leaves shine out in otherwise dull gardens. In autumn and winter they carry flowers which, while not showy, have exquisitely sweet scent. Like all
Elaeagnus species, they have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria which form nodules on the roots producing fertiliser both for the plant and others nearby. At home we have Elaeagnus pungens Maculata, a related species which offers a similar bright leaf display, so no need to buy one of these.

Mahonia-X-media-CharityThe yellow flowers of Mahonia x. media make it one of the best winter-flowering plants to have in the garden. Chance offspring of Mahonia lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica at the Slieve Donard Nursery in Northern Ireland, seedlings were raised by John Russell at his Richmond Nursery in Surrey. They were planted out in the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park (where I once woorked), where they first flowered in 1957. Head of the Royal Gardens at Windsor at the time was Mr Hope Finlay and seedlings Faith, Hope and Charity were named by him. ‘Charity’ went on to be recognised as the superb winter flowering shrub we all know it to be, with an RHS Award of Merit in 1959 and, in 1962, a First Class Certificate.

 

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ has canary-yellow flowers from October to March, with a delicate fragrance – a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees out late or early in the year. The flowers are produced at the ends of new shoots with abundant racemes displayed at an angle. This is a plant with architectural quality and reaches about 2m in height. Each leaf has roughly 9 pairs of shiny, evergreen, opposite leaflets, angled slightly from the stem. I will decide where to plant todays purchase over the next few days but I’m delighted to have it sitting around near the house for the moment.

 

Pieris Little Heath

Pieris Little Heath

Pieris are valuable for winter and spring interest, some with colourful foliage, some with lovely flowers and some with both. Pieris japonica Little Heath is a delightful dwarf evergreen shrub with leaves edged in silver. Young foliage is shrimp pink and winter flower buds are soft mauve pink, opening to white bells in the early spring. They are long lasting in a vase as well. I can’t help but think we should have lots of Pieris varieties in the garden so I bought a nice specimen of Little Heath to get us started. I may plant it in the shade of the house at the front, where the little raised bed would suit it, it could go in a pot by the front door or perhaps in the Oriental Garden under the Sequoia. We shall see.

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Winter arrives in France (at last!)

Holly berries in the snow

Somehow we all knew it would end in tears. The weather has been milder than Nature intended throughout the winter; plants have been flowering unseasonably and the summer bedding seems to have hardly noticed the passing of the months. Farmers, growers and gardeners, while perhaps enjoying the show, have been nervous for some time, fearing damage to blossoms and the ruining of crops when and if the weather finally turned cold. Peach and Apricot growers in the South-West have featured on the evening news, looking more than a little concerned.

Phormium - New Zealand Flax

Yesterday the snow arrived and we are told that not far behind are bitter Siberian winds. Walking the dog in the countryside has been a pleasure however, with the sun out and photogenic scenes at every turn.

In the meantime the local gardening shop’s promotional brochure arrived today, highlighting the agrarian nature of this country and its people. The leaflet features seed potatoes, nothing unusual there, but also rotavators with reversible plough attachments, bee hives – the real thing, not ornaments – and hatching equipment for your chicken eggs. When was the last time you saw these in your local Wyevale? Not to be left out, the hypermarket is offering above-ground swimming pools, ride-on mowers and a range of rainwater recovery kits, including one utilising linked underground storage tanks, each of 2650L capacity. Gardening is different in France, but just as big as in the UK.

Mimosa in the front garden at the Garden Design Academy

EBay plants and vermiculite by post

A pity there are not many gardens centres like this in France

Back in the UK we used to take garden centres pretty much for granted. We had a dozen or more within a short drive of our home, ranging from small privately owned businesses to impersonal sheds like Wyevale. At the top end there were places you could get lost in for the day: destination centres, as they like to call themselves: Poplars Garden Centre of Toddington, Dobdies in Milton Keynes, Roger Harvey Garden World or Van Hage at Great Amwell. You could more or less buy whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, unless my absence has fogged my memory with a rosy, horticultural glow.

Last week I wanted to sow Geraniums Moulin Rouge from T&M. I like to top the compost with Vermiculite after sowing, to retain moisture while still providing plenty of air to the seed. We drove to the local garden centre, and then another, to try to buy some, but there was none to be found. Back at home I resorted to the internet and found that gardening forums serving the ex. pat British gardener were full of requests for vermiculite suppliers. In the end I found the product at a reasonable price on EBay and it arrived today from a company in N.E. France.

Cortaderia selloana Cool Ice

Cortaderia selloana Cool Ice on arrival showing variegated foliage.

The trouble with EBay is the delivery charges, which can add a considerable amount to your purchases (in fact, years ago I was buying things regularly from a supplier in China; the articles cost very little but the postage could be ten times as much!). This company wanted more than I thought reasonable for postage and packing but would discount if you bought more than one item. I happily selected Cortaderia selloana Cool Ice for a total bill little more than if I had bought the vermiculite alone. Cool Ice is one of a number of Pampas Grass varieties trialled by the RHS in 2007-2009, features white leaf margins and is said to be compact. It did not receive an award of merit but availability is one of the criteria. I have found very few references to this variety so I am excited to see how it performs in our garden.

The Pampas Grass arrived in good condition, a well grown plant in a 3L pot. Plants by post have a reputation to be on the small side but this was not the case with the supplier, http://www.boutique-plante-nature.fr/. This is not the first time I have bought plants via EBay, a practice which, I can see, might cause a horrified reaction from my gardening friends, but so far, so good. I have on the other hand, had plenty of issues after buying plants from nurseries at garden festivals and many more with the popular gardening catalogue companies in France.

My next chance to see some of the best nurseries in France gathered in one place will be the forthcoming Salon du Vegetal show in Angers in February. I am trying to organise my life so that I can visit, but life is so busy, it’s not easy these days.

Organic gardening and cut-price gardening courses

I was 14 years old when my parents bought a market garden in the village of Carnon Downs in Cornwall, on the south-west tip of England. The property was owned by two ladies who grew cut flowers, bulbs, soft fruit and vegetables, all organically. They had reached retirement age and were considering selling up and somehow my Father had met them. People like my Father, it’s a talent he has, and the ladies decided to sell him the property and teach him how to grow. We didn’t have the money so the ladies accepted what we did have and agreed to take the remainder when we could afford it.

Cornish daffodils

The farm was run organically; this meant nothing to me, it was just the way we grew things. We lived in a house which appeared to have a spring underneath it: water flowed through the house on both floors for half the year and gave us colds. The beds were always damp and while Cornwall is relatively mild in winter, the continuous high humidity let the cold into your bones. The drinking water came from the well by the house, extracted to a tank by a hand pump, the handle of which mysteriously rose up and down, driven by a Heath-Robinson style system and an electric motor. People used to knock at the door to ask for a glass.

The main crops were daffodils, both for flowers and bulbs, strawberries and Pittosporum, which was cut for florists’ foliage in the winter and packed into huge sacking bundles to be sent by train to markets in London, Birmingham or Bristol. Other flower crops included Irises and Anemones, spreading the risk that one harvest may not achieve the prices hoped for from a system in which we had little or no control. Sometimes I helped pack daffodils until two in the morning and went to school a few hours later. Sometimes the flower boxes were crushed and ruined by careless railway staff. Some years the weather ruined the crop.

Wisley RHS gardens

While grim experiences were not rare, I somehow came through all of that with a love for plants. I was fascinated by them; by their Latin and common names, the way they grew, their beauty and their uses. We had a grass roadway called Wisley Lane, which gave access to many of the fields. The ladies would take a short holiday each year, visiting the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and acquiring a few cuttings. The resulting plants, often unusual, grew all the way down Wisley Lane.

Compost for the fields was homemade, created by cutting down the grasses and wild flowers of Little Moor, Lost Moor and Big Moor, three marshy fields at the bottom of the property. I used to do this each year with an Allen Scythe and still have nightmares remembering my struggles with the machine and the Horse Flies on hot days at the end of summer. Big Moor was covered with wild orchids. Later we came to an arrangement with the council works department, who dumped all the autumn leaves they collected on a piece of ground by the front road. The resulting organic matter was spread over the fields to improve the structure of our heavy, clay soil. Granular fertiliser was also used, made in Cornwall from fish waste, while liquid feed came from seaweed. Cornwall has a huge coastline and its products are part of the fabric of the region.

The site of our old nursery, now a garden centre

Times move on and our old nursery is now a garden centre. The house has long since been demolished and I lack the courage to see if Wisley Lane is still there.

There are more tales to tell, of course, but I wanted to mention that the Garden Design Academy’s offer of the month is £80 off the home study course ORGANIC GARDENING & CROP PRODUCTION an excellent new course we are pleased to be associated with.

Something for nothing again – Thompson & Morgan seeds.

I’m a great fan of growing plants from seed and have been using Thompson and Morgan in the UK for years. Now based in France, we use the T&M Worldwide site at http://www.tandmworldwide.com from which this screenshot is taken and who have agreed to provide a prize to readers of this blog.

On offer is a £20 parcel of seeds including the T&M Flower of the Year and Vegetable of the Year as illustrated here.

To win this box of goodies please “Like” this blog post and leave a message including your email address, name and address and a winner will be picked out of the proverbial hat at the end of the month.

Thompson and Morgan would like to send you occasional newsletters and offers but please tell us if you do not want this and we’ll make sure you are not bothered.

I already have seedlings of Sweet Pea Ballerina but there is still plenty of time yet. The rest of my sowing will start in January, with the Begonias and Geraniums, using a heated propagator bought from T&M last year.

With the co-operation of suppliers I hope to regularly run competitions and give-aways, so have a go at this, our first and watch out for more in future posts.

To have a chance of winning this box of seeds please “Like” this blog post and leave a message including your email address, name and address and a winner will be picked out of the proverbial hat at the end of the month.

Missed opportunities and great potential.

My wife and I have wasted the whole day fighting with Dell, the supplier of our PC’s – not the way a gardener should be spending such a lovely, sunny day. I won’t bore you with all the facts, but after a hard disc failure on my wife’s machine, Dell seem to be doing everything they can not to honour the 24-hour repair warranty we were persuaded to take out. The latest tale is that while they will repair it free of charge, we have to purchase a new copy of Windows 7, the operating system without which the PC will not function. It’s a bit like buying a plant at the garden centre, roots not included!

This has not helped our sense of humour or improved our sun tan. In the meantime not only did the Courson Plant Fair come and go without us overspending, or indeed attending, we also seemed to have missed the Chestnut season; how could this be? Gardening works with the seasons if it works at all – if you sit too long in the shade, the summer will just pass you by – you have been warned by one who knows!

Fortunately there are suppliers out there who can be relied upon and the loud thud which accompanies the arrival of the seed catalogues is enough to galvanise even the most lackadaisical and distracted into action.

Big Begonias growing with Petunias in our garden

Over the years I have noticed a change, discreet at first but now gathering momentum, as the seedsmen increasingly sell their more interesting varieties as young plants rather than seed. This is difficult for us, as most UK companies will not post to France. There is good reason for this; our testing of grafted tomatoes was ruined by the condition of the plants on arrival: only two out of nine survived. A trial of a new variety of Begonia was similarly blighted (although I maintain the grower was also at fault, a theory firmly disputed by the company concerned). Benary’s Begonia “Big” has finished the season on a high, but taken most of the year to recover from the damage inflicted by the journey from the UK.

Commercial growers and parks departments have been utilising seedlings and young plants for twenty years and most now leave this stage to the specialists. Many years ago we had a 6 acre glasshouse nursery providing this service on behalf of a French seed company. At the home gardener level, tricky and expensive plants like F1 Begonia, Geranium and Impatiens are important seedling / plug subjects, but the range available is increasing at a pace.

Plugs and seedlings

The Dobies catalogue features 25 pages of flowers and 11 pages of vegetables offered as young plants, in addition to bulbs and fruit plants. Suttons also list more than 26 pages of flowers and vegetable plants, while Thompson and Morgan have them scattered throughout their catalogue. As the nature of their customers’ changes from garden enthusiasts to a much wider public and gardening skills diminish, this convenient and profits-enhancing development is sure to evolve.

T & M was the first of these catalogues to arrive and my order was sent by email a while ago. We do not yet grow a wide range of vegetables as, for the moment at least, we don’t have a lot of space for a proper veg garden and those we do grow are scattered amongst the ornamental plants. We like our tomatoes however and Sungold, Suncherry and Sungella are our choices for next seasons salads. Courgettes do well here but the plants take up too much space for my liking. This year we will try the F1 hybrid Defender, which I gather is a much more compact plant and less likely to give us marrow-shaped fruits of the variety we grew this year. Lettuce Lettony is a new variety I thought worth a try. I am hoping the promise of being resistant to bolting holds true as we had too much of that this season. Golden Berry Little Lanterns completes our selection and I hope it will do well out of doors: we used to grow them in the greenhouse and I love both the look and taste.

Gaura lindheimeri

In flowers, we are trying a mixture of easy and challenging subjects, including a few herbaceous perrenials like Eryngium, Gaillardia, Gaura lindheimeri and Lupins. New this year is Sweet Pea Prima Ballerina, Papaver Pink Fizz (two-tone pink with frilly edges) and Godetia Rembrandt, while Calendula Chrysantha is a variety which dates from the 1930’s. We are trying some tuberous Begonias from seed in addition to double Impatiens and award-winning Geranium Moulin Rouge. We are growing Antirrhinum Axiom mixed and Sunflower for cut flowers, with Sweet Pea White Supreme in the white border.

As I write, Chantal is studying the other catalogues.

Peche de Vigne and other autumn planting temptations.

At the Saturday market, Roger the market gardener was offering Peche de Vigne, a fruit I had only vaguely heard of. “What is the difference between a normal Peach and a Peche de Vigne?” I asked, and was told that they were not grafted but grown from seed. Also the fruit was not as good as a grafted variety but used in cooking.

Clearly this was not the whole of the story so I investigated further. Peche de Vigne is not really a variety but rather a type of peach, late flowering, fruiting at around the same time as the grape vines and used as an indicator plant in Lyonnais vineyards in the way that roses are in the Bordeaux region. Both the rose and the Peche de Vigne are very prone to mildew, so if you plant them at the head of your row of grapes they act like a canary to a coal miner, warning of troubles ahead. Apparently selected varieties exist and there is said to be a collector in Saint-Etienne d’Estrechoux in the Herault with 120 different varieties gather from all over France and fruiting over a 5 month period. Many of them have red flesh and this form is commercialised in Soucieu-en-Jarrest, self-styled Capital of Peche de Vigne, south-west of Lyon.

It feels a little autumnal today; temperatures have dropped ten degrees to around 20° C and as if to prove the point, plant catalogues have started arriving in the post. I am a cynic when it comes to this end of the gardening market; outrageous claims, dodgy photographs and a lack of Latin names are a feature of these publications. Offers seem too good to be true and generally are, and why do they think price draws and free gifts are a good idea? I guess I am not their ideal customer profile.

In France, Jacques Briant is perhaps the acceptable face of this genre and their autumn catalogue has made interesting reading. An inserted special offer leaflet with four David Austin roses for 28€30 attracted my attention and had me turning pages. I arrived at page 18 very rapidly, but paused to look at Camellia williamsii Anticipation – 9,99€ for a 7cm rooted cutting….I don’t think so! Seven pages later a primrose caught my eye – Zebra Blue has sky blue veins over a white background – very pretty and five times the price of Suttons in the UK, but then, Suttons don’t send plants to France.

Fruit next and yes, they offer both white and red-fleshed Peche de Vigne. There’s a selection of Apples, Pears, Plums and Cherries, including Bigarreau Trompe Geai, with yellow-white fruits, unattractive to birds. Being France, there are also Apricots and other fruits, more or less exotic to the English gardener. They give a half page to the self-fertile Kiwi (Actinidia) Solissimo, which I bought from a rival company in the spring. My plant arrived in a pathetic 7cm pot and finally convinced me I was never going to buy from Willemse again.

Rushing on to page 48 to look at the shrubs. Abelia Kaleidoscope is a lovely looking plant, already growing happily in the front garden, as my reader will be aware. Mahonia ( nitens) Cabaret is doing well in the back garden, as are Daphne odora (Aureomarginata) – full Latin names are not always used – and several others featured here. By pages 52/3 we have moved on to Hydrangeas, including some tempting new varieties. I think I’ll wait until the Coursan plant show to buy a few more, perhaps Hydrangea arborescens Incrediball, with truly massive white flower heads.

Moving on past several interesting climbers, including their own Schizophragma Rose Sensation, which we planted this year, interesting looking Akebia quinata rosea and several attractive Clematis, we finally arrive at the trees, where several plants take my fancy.

I have always felt the front garden needed a tree and considered moving a speciment from the back to the front, but obviously we want to sho off a bit! Three other possibilities leap out from the page: Albizia (julibrissin) Rouge Pompadour a gorgeous Mimosa-like tree of sculptural form with fluffy red flowers, Acacia Casque Rouge (actually Robinia Pseudoacacia Casque Rouge, but I’m sure they know that) a deep pink form of the Robinia that grows wild all around us and, Chitalpa x.taschkentensis Summer Belles. This last tree is really rather interesting. A recent hybrid between Chilopsis and Catalpa, the original breeding work was undertaken at the Uzbek Academy of Science in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the 1960s before being introduced internationally in the mid 1970s. This small hybrid with a rounded form initiates flower bud in June / July, opening to produce an abundant display of frilly pink flowers with yellow throats for the rest of the summer.

Other forms exist but this could be the answer.

The catalogue continues up the order form at page 120 by which time I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand some interesting plants, on the other, French retail prices and irritating marketing methods which do not inspire confidence in this gardener.