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!

 

 

 

 

Pilgrim’s Progress…

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Unknown Helianthus, Tostat, September 2017

This year, with so much caramelised garden around me, I am very grateful for the bright and sunny feel that the late unknown Helianthus is offering to the garden.  I used to have massive colonies of it, but over the years, I have resisted it’s charms and turned my head away, ripping much of it out for ‘better’ plants.  But, eating quantities of humble pie, I realise that this tall, wiry tough plant has much to offer with late flowering, bright, jolly colouring and an absolutely bomb-proof manner.  So, though I wouldn’t return to the vast thickets of it that I used to have, I think it is quite fabulous as a spot-planted, intermingled plant, just dotted about and bringing general jollity.  I apologise unreservedly.

Meantime, cutting back the burnt bits and allowing for the beginnings of new growth for next year is the priority for the next few cooler days.  We have had two days of really heavy rain, which at last has penetrated more than a couple of centimetres beneath the baked crust.

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Nepeta grandiflora ‘Zinser’s Giant’ photo credit: http://www.promessedefleurs.com

And that early division of some Stachys ‘Hummelo’ that I tried out a couple of weeks back having been a great success, I similarly tackled some discounted Nepeta grandiflora ‘Zinser’s Giant’ and some Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, and am about to do the same again for some Doronicum orientale ‘Little Leo’ that I also bought cheaply. Cross fingers for all of these.  I had one spectacular failure in the seed-growing department, and that was Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, so when I saw the reduced plants at Promesse de fleurs, I jumped at them and hope that my brutal saw and chop tactics of early division pay off.  These are all new varieties to me, so no home-grown photographs yet.

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Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ photo credit: http://www.promessedefleurs.com
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Doronicum orientale ‘Little Leo’ photo credit: http://www.promessedefleurs.com

But the rain has enabled me to finally get going with the restoration of my lapsed Labyrinth project.  All of 3 years ago, I dug out and created the beginnings of the five-circuit labyrinth in the back garden.  It seems like aeons ago.  I used to joke that you would have to be ‘Donald Trump’ to buy plants to plant it up.  Joke has gone rather sour now.  But the essence is that I chose to plant it with Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’ which I thought would be way tough enough to cope with full sun and limited water.  The first year’s seed planting was great and produced about 75% of the plants that I needed, which was a good start.

But the second year’s seed-planting was a disaster, and in the meantime, hotter, drier summers seemed to be accelerating every year.  So, with weed invading and plants struggling, I decided to go for a change of plant, over to the tried and tested Panicum virgatum and keep the Carex that made it, but essentially continue with the Panicum.  A more mongrel look, you might say.  This year, with 130 healthy and good-looking Panicum virgatum plants at the ready, I am carrying on- after much trial and tribulation.

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The Baby Labyrinth part planted with Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’ , Tostat, July 2014

I am embarrassed to publish a photograph of how it looks right now, but I think I will be strong enough to brave the challenge in a couple of months once the Panicums have had a chance to settle in.  I think this could be a story of adversity and and not losing heart after all.

 

 

 

The truly wonderful Henryk Eilers

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Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henryk Eilers’, Tostat, July 2015
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Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henryk Eilers’, Tostat, August 2015

Apparently, according to the ‘English Garden’, this very agreeable plant, Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henryk Eilers’ is one of Nigel Dunnett‘s favourite plants of the last two decades- I would agree wholeheartedly.  It is not a ‘blingy’ plant- rather, it is a good, strong grower that has even come through our terrible drought this summer, though, admittedly, the flowers are the size of a fingernail, tiny in comparison with these photographs of 2 years ago.

It grows as well as ‘Goldsturm’, and like ‘Goldsturm’, will take pretty much whatever is thrown at it, in terms of weather and conditions.  But it should become a slender giant, up to 1.5m or taller, with supple, strong stems that bounce back, and these lovely, quilled flowers with the typical dark chocolate Rudbeckia centre.  The yellow is softer than ‘Goldsturm’, and the quilling gives the whole flower a delicate appearance.  But delicate, it ain’t.

It was discovered alongside a stream near railway tracks in open prairie in Illinois by a retired nurseryman, Henry Eilers.  It first appeared on the commercial market in 2003 and has won hearts across the world ever since.  I bought it in, maybe, 2007, when I found a small nursery, Groenstraat 13, in Belgium that specialised in Dan Hinckley introductions, and it arrived safe and sound in the post.  Rik from ‘Groenstraat 13’ called it ‘Henryk Eilers’ and because it reminds me of Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’, I like to keep the Flemish version of the name.  For more about this great plant, see this article by North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania.

It has toiled this year, but, I have a mind to dig it up and divide it sooner rather than later.  My experiment, inspired by Monty Don’s visit to Jimi Blake and Hunting Brook Gardens in Ireland, in early division of two clumps of Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ has been a real success- I am now a proud parent of 35 rapidly growing small plants in pots as opposed to two rather exhausted parent plants in a dried out garden.  Not bad, eh?!

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Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’, Tostat, June 2016

And, to remind myself about the great Nigel Dunnett, here are a couple of photographs from his RHS Chelsea gardens in 2011 and 2013.  I love his work.

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Nigel Dunnett’s Habitat Walls appearing through the planting, The New Wild Garden, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011.
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Nigel Dunnett’s Blue Water Garden, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013.