Fruity

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The apples trees I planted last year are finally bearing fruit! They seem to be doing exceptionally well this year. These are my first ever apple trees, so I’m super excited. All are on semi-dwarf root stock so I’m hoping they’ll remain relatively small.

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Hanging baskets, pots and troughs: Thrillers, spillers and fillers

It’s mid-July. Very often, bedding plants are beginning to look a bit tired at this stage, if not half dead. Unless you are the conscientious gardener who always remembers to feed and water hanging baskets and pots of bedding, by this time they can be looking somewhat depleted and have often run out of nutrients in the pot/basket. On the other hand, this can be the absolute peak for bedding plants, and there are some fantastic arrangements on show around the UK.

It can be a time of intense hanging basket envy, wherby you spot your neighbour’s lush, colourful hanging baskets and wish you’d had the energy to pot something up earlier in the year! Perhaps this explains the many customers we get coming into the garden centre at this late stage frantically hunting out a fully potted up and blooming hanging basket. You guys will pay some hefty money to get that stunning, well planted hanging basket that will look just perfect for outside the front door.

As a qualified horticulturalist more focused on shrubs, trees and herbaceous perennials, I don’t ‘do’ bedding. Well, I’ll qualify that – I do hanging baskets, made up from clearance reduced plug plants at the end of the plug bedding eight week season. I’ll then choose the last of them according to colours. I tend to go for a colour theme for each of my hanging baskets. This year, I have three hanging baskets and they are purple, white and deep pink themed.

When customers ask me how to plant up a hanging basket, I always use the same rule I was taught in horticultural college: you want a thriller, some fillers and lots of spillers. Each basket or pot arrangement of bedding needs a thriller, fillers and spillers. Easy, huh?

Your thriller is the main star attraction of the pot or basket. It is the biggest plant in the arrangement, and is placed centrally or to one side, depending on the location of the pot or basket. You only need one thriller. It ideally consists of your themed colour (either leaf or flower). Common choices of plant for a thriller might be a fuchsia, geranium, cordyline, perhaps a large begonia or fern, a dwarf conifer…whatever you want, so long as it’s the star of the show and can pack enough punch to pull the eye into the centre (height and spread is what you want). Ideally, it will be an upright plant, so if using a fuchsia choose a bush/upright variety and not a trailing variety. (Most bedding plants will be labeled upright or trailing.) Let’s say you want a dark pink themed basket, so you might choose a Fuchsia ‘Paula Jane’ as your thriller.

The fillers can be any number of a myriad of choices of bedding plants. It can be a bewildering choice. If so, keep it simple. Buy 4/5 of the same plant as your fillers if you want – there is no rule against it! Likewise, you can choose 4/5 or more of completely different, suitably-sized plants to plant around your thriller. I tend to choose 2 or 3 of the same type, and tend to use around 5/6 fillers in a basket. This creates some contrast but allows for a decent clump of the same plant in each basket. Remember the colour theme and stick to it. That pre-planned effect of an explosion of complimentary colours will be evident once they begin to grow and merge into each other. Typical, classic filler plants might be petunias, violas, pansies, nemesia, calibrachoe, bidens (bit of a trailer too), etc.

Lastly, you have your spillers – the trailing – sometimes seriously dangling – plant addition to every self-respecting, traditional hanging basket.

You can plant up veg or fruit baskets and pots too! Stick a tomato plant in the centre, some marigolds as companion planting around the edges, perhaps a few dwarf carrots, some dill or fennel, thyme and mint as your spillers. Just be prepared for these to run out of steam and space quite quickly regardless of feeding; they will need to be potted on or planted out eventually.

Grow Your Own Smug

The raised beds that we built towards the end of last year, constructed from sleepers, sat empty overwinter. Finally, in late spring, after ordering four tons of topsoil and creating the new herbaceous bed at the front of the garden, there was soil to spare. (I can’t say that wasn’t a surprise. Calculations, be damned.) Enough soil, as it turned out, to half fill each of the raised beds designated for veg growing. These were duly heaped up, and topped up with a liberal, stinky dose of farmyard manure. I dug it all in, and cleared any lumps and bumps. Then I set about planting up some veg plugs. At last! A real chance for me to live the self-sufficiency dream, and attempt to grow all of my own vegetables in the back garden. It’s the modern, organic vegan’s idyll. Stick that in your capitalist, free-market pipes, supermarkets. I don’t need your produce any more! Well, I probably will, actually, at least for some time to come.

The smaller 1m x 2m raised bed was designated the ‘Salad Bed’. Salad Bed, meet Cut n Come Again lettuce, Lollo Rosso, Butterhead, Spinach and Pak Choi. I was super excited about the Pak Choi – I love to make vegan Thai Green Curry, and this is a fundamental and relatively expensive component in the curry. The thought of skipping down to the bottom of my garden and cutting off perfectly fresh, organic pak choi leaves to use in a lovely curry bubbling away on the hob gave me a singularly smug grin, I’m not ashamed to admit.

Well, smug dreams come true; I’ve since used up all of the first batch of pak choi (over, and over, and over again – may even admit to being very slightly bored of cooking Thai Green Curry now). I was half expecting a come-down from my organic dream – some disappointing payback for being an idealistic fool – but instead, the pak choi leaves were fresh, and crisp, and juicy, and perfect. Still grinning here, smugly.

The loose salad leaves were equally rewarding to grow. As we all know, the first step towards self-sufficiency is growing your own salad. Ok, it probably isn’t the first step at all and, ok, it can’t be compared to installing your own wind turbine, solar array, or reed filtration bed system, but it’s a step in the right direction. No more last-minute jump in the car and head to the local shop for a gassy and over-priced bag of salad. Oh no! Step outside into your own tranquil oasis, stroll down to the veg patch, and pull a few leaves off a plant. How simple is that? No fuel needed, takes a minute rather than ten, and there’s the satisfaction element. Yes, there’s that smug grin again.

The spinach leaves are best used up while young and fresh. Sadly, too many of mine shot up and started to go to seed. I understand that the hotter and drier both pak choi and spinach get, the more likely they are to run to seed. Next time, I’ll attempt to keep the salad bed far more moist; but a very hot and dry period fell quite soon after these had started to develop, and I think this caused them to run to seed early. I pulled out most of these, to allow the other leaves to develop.

I have given quite a few lettuce heads to family, as no matter how much you think you’ll use, you never use that much. Don’t over-estimate how much veg. a small family needs to grow. You actually don’t need a lot of space at all, if you sow and bring on your veg month by month, as and when you use it.

I’ve since done this with the pak choi – used it all up, and sown more in the cleared space – and these have germinated quickly and are starting to develop into small, healthy plants. I’ve tried to keep the watering well up with this second batch. I’ve sown red leaf and green leaf varieties. The red leaf variety of Pak Choi intrigues me – how much difference will there be in taste between red and green? Red leaves in salads are often much more bitter. I’ll find out in around a week, and report back.

In the 2m x 2m bed, I planted golden courgettes, mange tout, petit pois, runner bean ‘Streamline’ and leeks ‘Musselburgh’. As I’ve mentioned, the weather has been far too hot and far too dry. The only downside to having raised beds in the middle of a 200 foot south facing garden is that it is miles away from a hosepipe or water butt! This needs to be rectified. As a result, this bed has dried out quite a bit so far this year, on and off, and the legumes have suffered a little. The courgettes are… well, courgettes. You can’t go wrong with courgettes, can you? Plant them, watch them grow (and grow), and eat courgettes until they’re coming out of your ears. Job done. I can’t recommend growing your own courgettes highly enough. Great for beginner veg growers, and I feel I speak as one.

I’m really excited about the leeks; but I know I’ve planted them too close together this year so they won’t do as well as they could have. It’s a learning experience. Next time I’ll give them more space between plants. I love cooking with leeks so it will be great to have our own home-growns to cook with. The Streamline runner beans are finally rewarding me with fabulous, juicy long beans. Again, runners are a fave veg, so we are well pleased to be able to pick and cook these now.

We still have one remaining raised bed to finish. The gravel is down. There is also the greenhouse to install in this section, and guttering and water butts. This has had to be put on hold while other work in the garden is completed (now done). In that bed I’ll grow more brassicas, I think, and next year I plan to grow Jerusalem artichokes and salad potatoes, too.

Please welcome to the world: Lilium ‘Blackburn’

Last year, I bought some specialist lily bulbs at Gardener’s World Live. They sat in their little brown paper bags for some time – long past planting time – until I finally succumbed to the guilt induced by looking at two sad paper bags of lily bulbs, and finally put them in nice deep, wide pots. Just in time for winter! Derp. So, they sat in their pots all winter, putting out lots of root and not much else (naturally).

This spring, the first shoots appeared from the abyss of barren soil, and I got a little bit excited. I might actually see these lilies flower after all? They have put on growth since March, slowly, endless pushing upwards and outwards until they have filled their pots with countless stems of lush green leaves. They started to look tired around May time, with the leaves turning pale and a bit sickly, and they have been mercilessly attacked by Scarlet Lily Beetle since the first sprouts appeared. My partner took on the thankless task of locating each beetle with deadly precision, and taking them out, one by one. It took about a month to remove all traces of Lily Beetle, including finding their eggs on the undersides of the leaves, and removing them. We also used a couple of doses of organic bug spray. At the same time, I commenced with a weekly liquid feed (Tomorite or Miracle-Gro – either is good).

All traces of Lily Beetle removed, and feed taking effect, the lilies started to look incredibly green and lush once again. Juicy, fat buds started to form at the ends of each stem. Some of these stems have grown to about a metre long! Each day, I briefly inspect each stem, looking to see how far advanced each flower bud is, waiting patiently for one to pop. For the last week, three of the stems on my lily ‘Blackburn’ have been loaded with ever-darkening and ever-expanding buds, all ready to burst. I’ve felt like an expectant father. This morning, this happened.

Lily 'Blackburn'
Lily ‘Blackburn’
Lily 'Blackburn'
Lily ‘Blackburn’
Lily 'Blackburn'
Lily ‘Blackburn’

Chaos Vs. Order – the conservationist gardener’s predicament

My plan for the garden here always involved leaving the top section of the 200 foot length to grow slightly wild and unkempt. The initial idea was to have a shady, slightly Japanese inspired oasis of bamboos and Acers, long grasses, a meandering path of slightly shorter grass, leading to a shallow ornamental pond and raised deck with a summer-house. Sounds good, right? So far, all I’ve managed is some seriously long grass and a ridiculous section of rotting turf at the very top of the garden. Yay (that was sarcasm).

Amongst the long grass, I’ve planted three fruit trees (two apple and one pear, all on semi-dwarf root stock) and three dark foliage ornamental trees (Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’Prunus cerasifera Nigra and Malus ‘Royalty’. These aren’t showing much growth yet, but it’s the first year. I look forward to seeing these trees flourish (hopefully) and fill their allotted space in this section.

Last year, after moving in, I left the dog’s paddling pool in the long grass at the top of the garden. It filled with rain, then dried out, then filled with rain, and so on. It has been almost full for some time now, due to the rains we’ve had in May in the UK. I moved it to empty the nasty water over the trees a few weeks ago, only to spot a small newt plop out onto the soil as I poured. I was amazed, and horrified. I quickly put the paddling pool back in its previous spot in the long grass, then scooped up the newt (with difficulty – slippery things), and put it back in the water. In my panic, I put a large rock in the water with it, and a plant in a pot. I’m not sure why – something for it to do? In all seriousness, I was ecstatic to find this single example of unusual UK wildlife in my garden, and immediately went into action to encourage it to remain. The odd bank of rotting turf, weeds, long grasses, and self-seeded saplings popping up behind the paddling pool have obviously attracted small animals and birds. It is a rare area of uncultivated and undisturbed wilderness – small as it is – in an otherwise ordered and highly maintained row of urban gardens.

I mean, I knew we had foxes. I’ve even fed them once or twice, and they have rewarded me with some lovely dusk antics (and the occasional harmless digging in my veg bed). I’ve seen the occasional bat swooping low at dusk, and some swallows darting and screeching across the gardens in the last few days. All wonderful, but none of these seem too concerned with the wild state or otherwise of my garden. I realise they are dependent on insects, and how I plant and maintain my garden will affect insect populations and, thus, affect them (e.g. pesticide use and planting insect attracting plants); but that is slightly different to the implications of the actual physical state of the garden.

Since then, I have seen the same common newt in the paddling pool, but we now have two Great Crested Newts, a male and female. I’m out of my tiny mind with joy. I’ve also seen Burnet Moths (loads) stopping to enjoy the long grass and sanctuary, and a small common frog. This is great! My son, who was reared on long walks in the countryside and respect and love for wildlife, has spent more time in the garden in the last few days watching the newts and moths, than he ever has in the previous eleven months. Now, I’ve realised I have a bit of a quandary.

‘The Plan’ involves clearing this top section of garden, removing the bank of turf, clearing away the unwanted saplings, and building a raised deck and summer-house. It also involves putting in a very shallow ornamental pond. ‘The Plan’ never took into account existing wildlife, nor did it take into account any wildlife looking for refuge from other gardens and locally cleared areas. It should have.

When I think back to the garden as it was, when we moved in, it was ALL long grass and wilderness. What creatures lived in it, back then? What wildlife did we disturb in the process of creating something ordered and cultivated, and pleasing to the human eye? What the hell do you do if you want a horticulturist’s dream garden – trimmed lawn, herbaceous beds, well-maintained shrub borders, cultivated veg and rose beds, etc. – and at the same time wish to attract and nurture some of the UK’s most endangered wildlife? It seems to me to be a very serious issue. There is and has been a long-standing war between humans and wildlife, with many of the minor battles taking place within the average urban garden. Wildlife is losing.

Now I find myself completely re-considering ‘The Plan’ for the top section of garden, and it is having an effect on my maintenance, too. There is a small section of wild scrub running alongside Flame’s lawn, and I had been planning to clear it this weekend. Then, I saw a frog in there, and that activity went out of the window. What if that is its home? How many other small mammals live in there? I’d really like to encourage frogs, as my Hosta ‘Blue Wedgewood’ (decimated) will testify, so do I really want to clear away its home? No. And, again, that leads me to ponder which animals’ homes I removed when we initially cleared the garden. Shouldn’t we all consider the implications to our local wildlife when we move into a new garden and make plans to cultivate and clear? Should it even be a legal requirement to survey and monitor wildlife in a garden before making changes to the physical layout? Probably.

That may sound extreme, but I’m really anti human arrogance – the idea that we have the right to charge into an area and do what we like with it is seen as a perfectly acceptable one, but it isn’t. We are a part of a whole – we are interdependent, and when we do what we like with an area of land, there are implications to wildlife populations, whether we are aware of them or not. There is a knock-on effect. Frogs and toads control pests, insects feed birds and bats, yet we are constantly striving to remove both from our gardens using our own highly questionable methods. Those methods are now being called to account for the catastrophic decline in bee populations, along with the general trend in drastic decline in small mammals and invertebrate populations. Organic gardeners know that we must use and encourage natural controls, rather than using lethal chemicals and destructive gardening practices which are ultimately counter-productive and disastrous for wildlife (and us).

‘The Plan’ as it stands? To hurriedly rush up to the silly blue, scallop-shaped paddling pool every morning and every evening to study the newts and search the long grass for moths and butterflies. Long-term, I’m thinking of building a much-bigger-than-planned pond, something deeper, with ledges for marginal plants and invertebrates. I’ll wait until Winter to start clearing the old, rotting turf, when hopefully most animals will have found somewhere to hibernate or hide. I’ll leave some of it undisturbed. We should still be able to build a raised deck area for  a summer-house, and the space beneath would potentially be ideal to locate a hedgehog hide, and for foxes and other mammals to nest in. I’ll keep the grass longer than planned, with the hopes that once the dust has settled from the deck construction, existing wildlife will make use once again of the hidden spaces and wild bits. I’ve cleared away the mental image of Japanese-inspired, ordered space, and come to terms with a different, wilder, less ordered vision of garden tranquility. It will be wonderful and guilt-free, the best kind of garden.

To landscape or not to landscape, that is the question. Think I’ll be pondering this one for a while. Perhaps we should all ponder… Ha, ponder? Never mind.

Phase 3: Raised beds

Time to have a quick breather, and enjoy the fruits of our labour. After mowing the lawns, the garden is looking good and starting to come together. Here is a view from not-quite-the-top of the garden, looking down towards the house. Ornamental and fruit trees can be seen, with a cut away section after this where the raised beds are being constructed. Beyond that is Flame’s lawn, and beyond the lawn is the rose arch and planted herbaceous beds. It’s looking good.

Garden view from the top
The long view of the garden.

Here’s a closer view of the raised beds area. (Yes, that is an unusually large Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ tree in the foreground.)

Raised beds.
Current view of the raised beds section.
Rose beds under construction.
Rose bed under construction – 2013.

With the first section almost complete – aside from the planned reclaimed brick path – it’s necessary to focus on the raised vegetable beds. It’s now May, and I need to start growing vegetables and salads, before it’s too late! As can be seen, there are three raised beds already constructed. A fourth is planned for the central area, but hasn’t been built yet. To the left of the picture, a raised bed can be seen planted with roses. This is the rose bed, and it was filled and planted towards the end of 2013, soon after I moved into the house.  The roses suffered a little over winter, and seemed to be plagued with black spot and die-back earlier in the year. I pruned them mid-March, and they have definitely benefited from this, and a liberal spray of Rose Clear. They’re now showing plenty of healthy new leaf, and most have flower buds forming. I’m really, really, REALLY (can’t stress enough) looking forward to seeing these roses flower.

A note about roses

I find roses a little fussy for my liking, as they’re often randomly developing fungal infections and diseases that seem beyond my control. They need regular spraying with anti-fungal and insecticide treatments, and they like a lot of water. They’re high maintenance, which is not my preference in a plant at all. Contrary to popular opinion (maybe), I have found that roses do best in a hot spot, South facing, with oodles of water to keep the soil moisture levels high. In this environment, they seem to really flourish. I have grown them like this in terracotta pots, and they thrived.

David Austin roses can be very temperamental; the first year or two of growth can be incredibly soft and leggy. Persevere, and the more resilient cultivars can be the most amazingly rewarding roses. I highly recommend  The Lady of Shallot, for incredible resistance to disease and black spot, very vigorous growth, and extended growing throughout the year (they are pretty much evergreen in the UK). The Lady of Shallot can be grown as a climber or shrub rose. Another vigorous David Austin rose is Wollerton Old Hall, and I recommend it.

I have visited David Austin roses on a number of occasions, initially as part of my job as a horticulturist at a large and well known garden centre in Derby. We were able to visit and observe the inner workings of the rose factory that is David Austin roses. There are now countless varieties of David Austin roses, two or three new cultivars appearing every year. Many of these won’t stand the test of time, for varying reasons. Despite coming through annual rose trials to be selected for colour, vigour, resistance, scent, and popularity, a cultivar may prove to be less vigorous or less scented, and won’t sell well. There are many David Austin groupies, and we see them a lot in garden centres. Many people will want to try to grow every new variety.

The grounds of David Austin Roses is well worth a visit, and anyone can do so. Best time to visit being June to August, for maximum appreciation of the summer flowering roses, and the formal herbaceous gardens. David Austin roses spray all of the roses grown on their grounds fortnightly, which is worth noting (if they do it, it might be a consideration to spray our roses more often at home?). Many of the David Austin roses are grown on site in large pots, including climbers and standards. Again, worth noting.

Roses can be grown in containers very successfully. However, a deep, well-drained raised bed is a better option, and I’m lucky enough to have the option to build a raised bed purely for roses. Heaven! Here are some of my current rose cultivars growing in the raised bed:

  • David Austin – ‘Munstead Wood’
  • David Austin – ‘Darcey Bussell’
  • Rose – ‘Sexy Rexy’
  • David Austin – ‘Princess Anne’
  • David Austin – ‘Boscobel’
  • David Austin – ‘Boule de Neige’
  • David Austin – ‘Wollerton Old Hall’
  • Rose – ‘Blue Moon’
  • David Austin – ‘The Lady of Shallot’
  • David Austin – ‘Indian Summer’
  • David Austin – ‘Shine On’