Me and the Assistant Gardener…

 

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The Assistant Gardener resting in the grit bucket, Tostat, May 2018

I am really delighted that the sun has been shining in Scotland, where the Assistant Gardener normally lives, but am pig sick that we are back to 8 degrees and pouring, cold rain and wind for the last 4 days.  I can’t quite believe it, as it had looked as though we were beginning to emerge from a very wintery spring. I try not to moan, but usually don’t succeed.

Still, last week before all this came upon us, the Assistant Gardener volunteered herself into that role and we smashed our way into a much neglected part of the garden- the area in front of the pig shed and adjacent to the sunken gas tank.  It is actually more promising than that description sounds.  But, as the southern outpost of the New Garden, the area which we cleared of snakes and bramble to have a go at making a garden out of the naturally rocky, stony soil and not much else, it merits more work to it.

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New Garden, Tostat, May 2015

This is a bit of a Terminator section.  I have lost more plants than I can bear to remember in taking a long time to understand how to manage a hot, dry, stony garden area which, in the winter, is bleak, cold and half-wet.  What I have learned the hard way is:  that, unless you are an Olympian gardener with muscles to show for it, this area will defeat you unless you can accept a balance between deliberately cultivated plants and naturally arriving plants aka weeds.  So, the last few years have been about building that balance.  The existing planting is mature and so can take a few invaders without complaint- the difficulty arises in getting to that point of mature balance.  And knowing that the balance will need intervention on a big scale in late Spring when the invaders are settling in nicely and can be uprooted when the ha-ha soil is damp.

2015 shows what I was trying to do.  Much of this still remains though bigger and tougher, but in this very wet winter I did lose a super-big and lovely Halimium, leaning out over the gravel in 2015.  Last year, I laid a plastic cover down on the area to combat some of the invaders, and this was largely successful.  So, the Assistant Gardener and I set to, with the new set of hopefuls that I had auditioned for this tricky area. They included:

a dwarf pomegranate, Punicum granatum ‘Nana’, for its glossy green leaves, gorgeous singing-red flowers, and general toughness

Ononis spinosa, a tough dry-soil ground cover

Achillea nobilis, another tough dry-soil running plant

Salvia ‘Anthony Parker’, a fantastic Salvia, sadly not really winter-hardy despite what some say, but it flowers like a train, is a gorgeous deep blue, and I dig it up and stick it in a pot for over-wintering.  It can be huge!

Euphorbia pithyusa ‘Ponte Leccia’, new to me, one of the smaller euphorbias flowering later in June..

and Salvia ‘Hot Lips’, Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea purpurea, some repurposed bits of Sisyrinchium striatum and Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ where the soil is just a tad better.

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Linking the new planting (to the right) with the established stuff, New garden, Tostat, May 2018
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The New Garden planting, pig shed to the rear, Tostat, May 2018
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The New Garden, a long view, pre-planting with plastic still in place, May 2018

We did a good job.  Clearing the ground happened,  the plants went in, and they will have benefitted from the 4 days of rain, even though I moan.  The Assistant Gardener learnt that you bang the plant on the bottom while it is in the pot, not when you have already taken it out.  I was a little slow with instructions.  And so now we keep an eye on it all for the first year and then after that, it’s all on its own.

Must get round to trimming off the brown bits.

 

 

Twiddling thumbs…

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Tulipa clusiana Lady Jane, Tostat, March 2018

How does this little tulip do it? We are talking stems the width of shoelaces, and the flowers seem so delicate, looking rather ghostly in the greyness and wet of today.  In fact, their light meter is definitely stuck at ‘sunny’.  I am astonished by the casually butch approach it is taking to our latest bout of winter.  We are back to freezing temperatures, wind and rain, even thunder, and once again, any sensible plant has just stopped in its tracks.

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Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’, clumping up, Tostat, March 2018

Indoors, I have been laughing out loud at Anna Pavord’s 2010 book, ‘The Curious Gardener’.  Her deft wit and sense of humour pervades this selection of articles she wrote when gardening correspondent for ‘The Independent’.  I really did laugh at her account of Pavord family Christmases- and I love her self-effacing acceptance of gardening bloomers and disasters.  Unlike some, whose books can simply load you up with guilt-inducing instruction, she lightens all loads with her humour and likes and dislikes.

When the weather has given up annoying me for short periods, I have been out planting.  I have to, as my experimental growing perennials from seed phase has produced about a hundred small pots.  All of these have either been sitting on gravel through all the weather we have had, or some lucky ones got planted out in a spare patch to be dug up in the Spring.

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Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’, Tostat, June 2015. This clump produced about 10 plants when split.

Included in that number were some purchases last Autumn that I split and re-potted, so all in all, there is no excuse for not planting up generously.  I have been really struck by how bombproof these small plants have been.  I reckon that the death rate has been only 1-2%- which is brilliant.  The baby Echinacea pupureas were almost washed away in the rains of January and February, but all are putting on good growth although I need to top them up with a bit more compost.

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Helenium autumnale ‘Helena’, was a great success from seed photo credit and seed supplier: http://www.seedaholic.com

So, I am having a dense planting push.  I am ignoring conventional planting distances and going for less than half the normal recommendations.  I have one area that is entirely perennials with some added structural plants- and this area, now approaching its third birthday, is looking very promising, with lots of self-seeding. All I am doing is taking out dandelions and other major pests- otherwise, I am leaving it alone.

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Aster tartaricus ‘Jindai’. This split really well and easily, producing about 4-5 plants from each mother plant. photo credit: http://www.finegardening.com

In other parts of the garden, I am using this chance to really beef up the planting.  Mulching is a tricky proposition for me.  It risks flattening self-seeding, which is what I am after, and so I am trying out a slightly different approach.  Having read a short article about Thomas Rainer, an American landscape architect who is a big mover in the sustainable planting world, I then bought his book, written with Claudia West, ‘Planting in a post-Wild World’.  This is a scholarly tome, which carefully explains the building of resilient plant communities, but at the heart of it are the following principles:

  1.  Amending the soil- don’t
  2. Double digging- don’t
  3. Soil testing- do
  4. Mulching- don’t
  5. Planting cover crops- do
  6. Buying a lot of plants- do
  7. Curbside planting- do
  8. Experimenting and having fun- do

By all means read the book- it is very inspiring, but to get the gist, the Gardenista website article kickstarts all you need to know.  I am not a regular Gardenista reader, too much designery clap-trap for me, but just sometimes, it is spot-on.

So, with my small and brilliantly tough plants, I am setting out to offer them co-habitation in the hope that they will make me some resilient plant communities.  And where it is tricky to that fully, I am doing something different again.

My driest, hottest parts are actually pretty much jam-packed with plants- but even so, in  our wet Springs, I get masses of passing-through weed activity.  By that I mean, naturally occurring early season weeds, which actually mostly get burnt off or dried out by the height of summer.  So, this year, I am not going to charge about pulling them out, I am going to leave them be.  This is on the grounds that they have a role in protecting the durable plants through the winter and spring, and then, by and large, they die off.  So, as long as the balance between them, and the permanent plants stays in place- they are actually preventing the dessication and erosion of the soil by being there.

Thinking over- I am dying to get out there again!

 

 

 

 

Summer-dry or what…

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Abutilon pictum, Tostat, July 2017

Ok.  This is now the third summer in a row that exceptionally dry conditions have prevailed.  Not continuously, but in killer sections of exceptional heat and dryness rolling through from April until now, and showing no signs of abating.  In between conditions normalise a little, but the accumulating dryness builds over time.  So today, I was really thrilled to find a second hand copy of ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry of the San Francisco Bay Area’ edited by Nora Harlow and published by East Bay Municipal Utility District in 2005.

This book really triggered much of the current landscaping and garden thinking of the Bay Area, and was influential, winning the American Horticultural Society’s Book Award in that year.  So, despite paying more for the postage than the book itself, I am really looking forward to learning more about an area that could be really inspirational for me gardening in Tostat.

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Bupleurum fruticosum, Tostat, July 2017

Despite all, there are moments of loveliness- once your eye has adjusted to looking past the things that bug you! I grew Bupleurum fruticosum from seed about 7 years ago, and whilst not a looker in the conventional sense, the massed flower heads look fabulous at eye height and attract masses of insects. Now mature plants, they offer real presence in the garden as other plants go over, and I value their strong evergreen presence.

Echinacea purpurea is just coming through.  It is fair to say that this period, though super-dry, is also an inbetween moment in the garden anyway.  There is a pause that naturally happens in the summer, and we are in it.  But, Echinacea and Rudbeckia are arriving soon, thank goodness.

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Echinacea purpurea, Tostat, July 2017

This is the first year the Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has flowered- last year, bulb strength was being built with leaf production- but now we have flower spikes and leaves- a great display, but with us, it’s got to be grown in a pot so you can manage the watering levels required.  They are thirsty when in the middle of flowerspike production and it’s true, you want the spikes to last as they are quite magnificent.

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Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy, Tostat, July 2017

Abutilon ‘Pictum’ just at the top of the page, is another shrub that does best in a pot, not so much from the water point of view, but more from the over-wintering needed.  ‘Pictum’ like all the Abutilons with the wider-open bell-shaped flowers, needs not to be frost-nipped, so I lug it under cover in the winter, just to give it enough protection to make it.  ‘Mesopotamicum’ and an unknown orange abutilon are just that bit tougher, the toughness give-away being the more shrouded, longer-line flowers as below.  Personally, I am lusting after ‘Ashford Red’, of which more later…

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Unknown orange abutilon suffering a bit last summer, Tostat, July 2016

And the slightly mad- not-to everyone’s-taste Lilium ‘Flore Pleno’ is carrying on regardless.  And I love it for it’s slightly shambolic Rita-Hayworth quality.  It cheers me up.

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Lilium ‘Flore Pleno’, Tostat, July 2017