New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

Soon after the New Year celebrations had died down and well before we deposited the empties at the bottle-bank, we were sowing seeds for the new gardening season. Up in the loft under the skylight, where we keep the heated propagation unit, we now have trays full of seedlings of Salvia farinacea Victoria, Petunia F1 Reflections Mix (Suttons Seeds) and Red Hot Pokers. I always used to think of Antirrhinums as being something rather old-fashioned but have been won over by a new variety – Axiom mixed, which we have grown for three years running now and Purple Twist, both from T&M.

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

We have grown different varieties of Foxgloves each year to plant in the shadier parts of the garden, particularly under the Sequoia, and have selected yet another from this year’s T&M catalogue: Silver Cup, with soft hairy silver foliage and white flowers. You will have noticed a few perennials in this list and we will be sowing many more; a fabulously inexpensive way to populate a new garden.

Our seed propagation unit is a little bit of an embarrassment which I hope never to have to show our students or gardening friends, but it does work. It consists of a little polythene tent erected on a trestle table under a Velux window in the loft. I have added supplementary lighting made from spotlights reclaimed from the kitchen when that part of the house was remodelled. A foil heating unit covered with sand warms the base of the seed trays to give good temperatures and moist air for germination. It’s all a bit Heath Robinson – System D, as they say in France – but I recently read an advertisement for a complete growth room offered for €10 on a web site where people sell unwanted goods. This unit would cost around €800 when new, being the sort of equipment people use to grow Cannabis in their spare bedrooms, so I imagine the price was an error. You never know your luck however, so I have emailed the seller in the hope of acquiring a much more sophisticated unit. When I look back at the huge computer-controlled growth rooms we built when we ran a commercial seedling and young plant nursery in the UK many years ago, I cannot help but smile. Of course, we were also buying Begonias in 100,000-seed containers in those days!

Nerium oleander

Oleander

Last week we decided to combine a food shopping trip with a visit to a local garden centre which was advertising a sale. Amongst other things – seed compost, for example – we came back with two Oleander bushes and a large variegated Hebe: all at €2 each. I was delighted with these purchases, but you do have to be careful: I have noticed more than a few Vine Weevil infected plants offered as “bargains” in such sales. The Oleanders are now in the unheated conservatory waiting for warmer weather. They’ll be great in big pots on the terrace this summer.

My big project for this year is the potager behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. The four raised beds in oak are now built and with spare soil left over from these beds I intend to build another alongside a neighbour’s wall. This time we will construct it from woven poles of Hazel, secured with pegs of Robinia, all to be cut from the surrounding countryside. Slowly the garden is developing and I am particularly pleased to deal with this area as it is seen from the main window of the classroom. Already locals are asking why I did not build a French Garden with beds of Box. Firstly of course, it is a French garden, but medieval in style rather than renaissance. Secondly, pests and diseases of Box are threatening this fundamental feature of French gardens and I have no wish to deal with the issue when, inevitably, it arrives chez nous. Three Peaches have been planted, along with an English Bramley apple and a cutting of a hybrid berry from my old Granny’s garden. In addition I have acquired a large collection of vegetable seeds from Sutton’s and T&M seeds ready to sow when conditions are appropriate; I’m beginning to get very excited.

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Layering shrubs and the joys of bedding plants

variegated Chestnut

Pretty, cream-edged leaves of Castanea sativa Argentomarginata

It has been so hot lately that for light relief I have been doing some weeding in the shady area I call the Oriental or Woodland Garden. One of the delightful plants we grow there is not at all oriental, a variegated Chestnut, currently a very healthy looking bush. Removing weeds from around it I considered trimming up some of the lower branches but on reflection decided to use them as layers. I really like layering as a technique, mostly because it is completely fool-proof, and we have propagated many plants in the garden this way.

My experience with layering goes back to my youth, when I worked at the Royal Gardens at Windsor. A large proportion of these gardens were developed under mature Oak trees and as a result leaf-raking was a major activity in our lives for six months of the year, or so it seemed. Some of these leaves were taken to stacks to slowly break down, to be put back into the ground as soil improver. Huge quantities were just raked onto the shrub beds, where they acted as wonderful mulch. This mulch also provided ideal conditions for shoots to root, having been covered in the process. I would often find nicely established layers of rare and unusual Rhododendrons and other shrubs around the gardens……one or two of these found their way back home to Cornwall.

Layering is a long-established, if slightly old-fashioned, commercial propagation technique for a number of plants, still practised for species which are slow or difficult to root. It is useful when a nurseryman requires only a few specimens of a particular tree or shrub, or when large plants are wanted quickly. Layer beds may be established to achieve this, producing plants by systems such as Simple, French, Serpentine or Tip Layering, depending on species. Fruit tree rootstocks are commonly produced by Stool layering.

Marigold Golden Puff from Suttons, next to self-seeded Verbena bonariensis

Here at the Academy, I laid down a shoot of our Chestnut into a hole I had dug close by, bringing it up again in a way that formed an elbow approximating a right angle. Soil was packed down on top, this bending interrupting the flow of sap and inducing root formation. In the past I have done the same with Cotinus Royal Purple and Viburnum x. hillieri ‘Winton’, and used other forms of layering with Wisteria, Rubus and many other subjects. I also use it to train plants like Lavender and Santolina, bending and earthing-up a branch to push a shrub in the direction I wish. These layers could be removed and sometimes they are – they make nice presents – but often they are just left in place to increase the size of the shrub.

A pot full of Coleus Kong

We have grown large numbers of bedding plants this year, knowing the garden would be disturbed by the installation of the swimming pool. These are now starting to flower, later than in the village streets and park, but they have better facilities than we do. I like to grow small numbers of a wide range of bedding so our annual parcels from the likes of Suttons and Thompson& Morgan are always an event. Gazania Daybreak Tiger Stripe (Suttons) is one of the earliest in flower in the front garden while Antirrhinum Axiom and Busy Lizzie Double Carousel from T&M have just started in the pool-side bed at the back. Sweet Pea  Prima Ballerina, grown over a metal climbing frame, has kept the house in flower for a while now. Also from T&M, Coleus Kong mix is at its best with us when well fed in a pot, but less good in the poor soil near the pool. Sutton’s Marigold Golden Puff is just beginning to look impressive, alongside the ornamental, purple-leaved Millet Purple Baron. There will be many more to report on as the season progresses.

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.