That old September feeling…

September is a month that really divides opinion.  If you’re of school age (or perhaps a teacher) its approach can be a mildly depressing one. You look forward to the summer for ages and then in a blink of an eye it’s gone and it’s back to school in an itchy new uniform. If summer is about freedom then September is all about buckling down.

If you’re a gardener however September has a very different quality.  I often debate in my head which is my favourite month to be outside working. There’s attractions and drawbacks to all of them but what September generally has (in the UK) at least is a helpful lack of extremes.

There’s enough heat not to have to wrap up.  More importantly there’s still heat in the soil meaning there’s still plenty going on. It’s a good time of year to oversow patches of lawn, scatter wildlower seeds and plant overwintering onion sets.  More generally though it’s a good month to garden.

It feels like the foot has been taken off the pedal a bit. Weeds have begun to slow down. There’s less to do. In the high summer you can sometimes feel as if you’re running to stand still with lots of jobs demanding your attention.  Add to that long dry spells and all the watering involved and it can feel like there’s little time to actually enjoy the garden.

September offers that window of time when there’s still warmth and colour but less pressure to keep on top of things.  As well as dahlias, things like rudbeckia, eryngium and lavatera are all going strong. In my garden the cosmos patch keeps throwing up new flower buds, sedums are coming into their own and the geranium I gave a mid-summer tidy up are now offering a second flush of flowers.  If you’re growing vegetables it’s a time of wondering what to do with all those squashes.

The light takes on a special quality in September too. If you’ve fruit trees the ground is scented with fermenting windfall, the insects seem to turn a little woozy as spiders spin dew scented webs everywhere I put my head.

It’s just a shame it’s all too fleeting.  If the first half feels like summer’s final flourish, then the second half can be autumn’s entree.

It’s a good time to be outside and I always feel satisfied at having got through the demands of another horticultural summer.

Dallying with dahlias

I haven’t grown dahlias this year for the first time in ages. It’s just a case of space, my borders are all but full and my pot collection really doesn’t need to get any bigger.  As September pushes on I’m sort of wishing I had.

This is definitely their best month.  They’re South American sun lovers  who like to bake and need a long summer before they finally give you their all.

A few of my clients grow them and it always amazes me just many flowers they produce. As long as you keep deadheading on they go, sometimes right up to the first frost.

They’re one of those plants that really inspire dedication. In the past this probably helped contribute to their once unfashionable image. They were the preserve of allotments and old boys who turned over their entire gardens to rows and rows of dahlias.  One of my client’s comes from a mining background and he recalls the competitive dahlia growing competitions that were all part of local life.   The advantage of growing dahlias on an allotment was the availability of space and fertile soil. They’re related to the potato and like their edible family they like to spread themselves below ground.

These days dahlias are more often than not grown among mixed perennial borders where given a bit of consideration and good soil preparation they can be quite happy. They really come into their own at this time of year.  They can help enliven a border that is pushing past its best, a hidden gem that has been biding its time until there’s less competition.  If an Indian Summer kicks in then dahlias really do enjoy their moment in the sun. They make a fantastic cut flower for late in the season too.

In these northern climes it’s wise to lift them before the frosts.  Give them a quick brush down, allow them to dry for a couple of days and then store them somewhere warm and dry.  An alternative approach is to plant the dahlias in pots and then move the pot into the greenhouse.  This has worked well for me in the past, meaning they’ve developed new growth in early spring before they’ve been planted out.

There’s a vast variety of dahlias. As a general rule the simpler flowers are better for pollinators than the more complex pom-pom and water lily varieties. In my mind there’s nothing much that beats the old favourite, Dahlia ‘Bishop Of Llandaff’, with its brilliant red flowers and black foliage.   If local episcopal pride is a concern however you might want to go for its orange flushed, yellow flowered cousin ‘Bishop Of York’.

We can probably overlook the fact there’s not an actual Bishop Of York.  Everyone knows York has got an Archbishop.

Styphnolobium japonicum (or when an Acacia is actually a Japanese Scholar Tree)

WP_20180807_13_03_38_ProI’ve got a definitive ID of the incredible blooming tree that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago . I wrote that it seemed to be in the Fabaceae family and I wondered if it might be some kind of sun loving acacia.  No one had seen it flower in over thirty years.

It is in fact a Styphnolobium japonicum (sometimes known as a Saphora japonica) a tree that’s a native of China but naturalised in Japan where it was discovered by European plant collectors. It was brought to Britain by James Gordon in 1753 and you can still see one of the trees planted at Kew in 1760.

It’s packed full of medicinal properties and has a special place in Buddhist culture where it is known as the scholar or pagoda tree and was often planted outside temples. The young monks would have lessons beneath its canopy.  In Jingshan Park in Beijing a large, old Styphnolobium japonicum is known as ‘The Guilty Scholar Tree’ .  The last ruler of the Ming Dynasty , the Chongzhen Emperor allegedly hanged himself from the tree in 1644 after the imperial capital, Beijing, fell to rebel forces led by Li Zicheng. Today it’s probably more often seen used in bonsai than it is in gardens.

The reason no one has seen this particular one flower is that it doesn’t do so until it’s at least thirty years old, sometimes quite a bit older. This one is around 35 or so years old.   The flowers are incredible and the whole canopy is alive with bees so I wasn’t surprised to discover that it’s recommended by The British Beekeepers Association as one of their ‘Trees For Bees’.

Planting a young Japanese Scholar Tree is probably for most of us something of a gift to the future one reason perhaps why it’s always been more of a tree for public parks than domestic gardens.   The person who planted the Heworth tree is no longer with us but it’s likely people (and thousands of bees) wil be enjoying those flowers on a yearly basis from now on.

Habitat Aid sell a variety of ‘Trees For Bees’  including the Scholar Tree on their website and half of the profits go to UK conservation charities.

Contentment in a courtyard

 

York is the fastest growing city in percentage terms in the north of England.  It sometimes feels like there’s a constant pressure on our green spaces with applications for new housing going in all the time. At the same time the cost of putting a roof over your head in the city keeps going up. It’s seen as a desirable place to live for all kinds of reasons.WP_20180814_13_23_30_Pro

It’s likely as a result that more and more of us are going to be forced into high density living whether we like it or not. Under such circumstances gardens are seen as a luxury. It’s not the first time in the city’s history that there’s been pressure to build more and quicker in less and less space. During the 19th and early 20th century similar pressures helped to create the now very desirable terraced streets such as you find in Bishophill, South Bank and The Groves.  One of the most desirable places to live in York is Bishy Road which even twenty years ago wasn’t seen as particularly salubrious.

Houses with ‘proper gardens’ in those neighbourhoods usually sell at a premium, the rest making do with a courtyard. But just because a house only has a courtyard, it doesn’t mean it can’t be a garden.

WP_20180814_14_07_42_ProI currently look after two such courtyard gardens belonging to terraced houses. They’re a couple of my favourite gardens for all kinds of reasons not least because when I began gardening I only had a courtyard.  For a birthday someone bought me a book about container vegetable growing and within no time at all the garden was full of tomatoes, salad crops, potatoes, squashes and beans. The crop was mixed but relatively succesful. The following year I added large pots filled with wildflower seeds, sweet peas and a couple of potted fruit trees.  The result was dramatic, the garden was suddenly filled with all kinds of pollinating insects and the hard brick and concrete space we could see from our kitchen window was transformed.  It even inspired an artist friend to come and draw it.  Courtyard gardens tucked away in densely populated areas often have a secret garden quality to them.

Courtyard’s allow for all kinds of design possibilities as well. Islamic and Mediterranean gardens with their fountains, shaded seating areas and an abundance of well situated pots can be magical places in the heart of the hot city (and York has been VERY hot this summer). Plants like cistus, lavender, santolina and genista often feature. Likewise the traditional English cottage style can translate quite well into a courtyard with most traditional cottage plants coping quite well in pots as long as they are well looked after.  Clematis and wisteria will happily cover brick outhouses, grapes, peaches and figs will grow in a courtyard microclimate.

Give me a courtyard stuffed with all kinds of plants, climbers up the wall, a bike leant against an outhouse, a bistro set with pots of French lavender, perhaps a water feature or two and I’m happy.WP_20180814_14_10_34_Pro

If you’ve got a courtyard garden in need of some TLC or would like some help in turning your brick and concrete space into something more magical then get in touch

Not all avenues are Acacia avenues (and and not all acacias are acacias)

There’s been strange goings on in Heworth this summer.  While gardeners and the plants they look after have been wilting in the heat some things have been quietly preparing for a bit of a show.

Take this incredible, eye-popping acacia for example. It’s not one I look after, but has sat for decades in the garden next door to a client’s producing lovely foliage, losing some of its new growth each year in the winter frosts but otherwise not doing much else.

Then for the first time that anyone can remember it’s flowered. Not only has it flowered it’s entirely transformed into a mass of soft yellow sweet pea like blooms that cascade to make a beautiful canopy.  The whole tree buzzes with bees who probably think they’ve just arrived in heaven. There’s a reason why Acacia Honey sells at a premium.

I’m unsure as to the variety. I’m fairly certain it’s not the more common Acacia dealbata or mimosa which is a relatively common sight in English gardens. I’m currently trying to get an ID and will of course report back when I get the definitive answer.

I’m also waiting for the seed pods to appear so I can nab a few and attempt to germinate some of my own.

Acacias are native to Australia where they are often known as wattles and grow practically as a weed. After Eucalyptus they’re one of the most likely forest species to be found in those sun baked parts.  They’re also common in the Mediterranean where their foliage is often used by florists. They require lots of heat to put on such a good display as this one which really does underline just how extraordinary the first half of our summer has been.

The reasons the flowers look pea like is because they’re part of the legume or Fabaceae family (as too is wisteria) as too is the Robinia pseudoacacia which as the name suggest goes around pretending to be an acacia when it actually isn’t. There are a few giveaway clues that mark them out, the shape of the leaves being one of the most obvious.

That said, should someone come back and tell me that this is indeed one of those pretend acacias acting up I’ll take this news in the correct manner and chalk up a bit more hard won horticultural knowledge.

 

A year of extremes

Working outdoors I’m perhaps more aware of the weather than most. My ‘summer timetable’ began on the tail end of The Beast From The East’.  Usually in March there’s enough glimpses of sunshine to complement the first flowers and to suggest that Spring is well underway. This year it was cold, the ground was sodden when it wasn’t frozen and working in it was sometimes a challenge. But you plough through the worse of March knowing that April will bring some sunny days, shirt sleeves and better weather. This year it didn’t. It was still cold well into the middle of the month and at times it felt like it would never stop raining. I lost count of the number of times I came home looking like a drowned rat.  I remember talking to clients about the similarities with 2012 which was famously wet and cold throughout.  There were weird goings on elsewhere however with the London Marathon being run in the middle of an unlikely heatwave. The Met Office this year has had to issue warnings for serious snow, flooding and heatwave.

May began with a continued wet theme  before the weather began to settle into the dry and increasingly hot pattern we’ve seen over the last few weeks.  My plans for this blog post were originally going to include something about helping your garden to cope with the lack of water but that now feels superfluous following the Biblical deluge we’ve had over the past few days.  Organisers of summer events who were gleefully anticipating perfect conditions for this weekend just gone were instead tethering down gazebos or issuing cancellation notices.

It’s hard not to think that something is going on.  It is, but perhaps not quite how we imagine. The weather in March was actually not particularly unusual for that time of year we’ve just adjusted to milder winters.  The earlier arrival of Spring across the Northern Hemisphere is a well-established phenomenon, and one that has been linked to the changing climate.

What’s happened over the past few weeks, not just in  the UK but globally however is much more alarming for climate watchers. The planet is getting hotter. There were times over the past couple of weeks when places in the Arctic Circle were as hot as southern Spain. The consequences for communities across the globe have been clear to see.

In our own country we might not face quite such extreme consequences (but the people living near moorland areas that have been ablaze recently might disagree) but a warming climate will have profound consequences for how we live our lives, not least how we garden.  Should dry hot summers become the norm lush lawns will become a thing of the past, some of our much loved plants which thrive in a temperate climate may have to become history replaced by tougher sun lovers.

Now thankfully I’m not spending as much time watering as I have been and the ground is thoroughly soaked.   As older born and bred Yorkies have been telling me over the past few weeks we’ve never had a hosepipe ban in York as our water comes from the rivers Ouse and Foss but you can’t help but worry about indiscrimate use of water on our gardens.

We might be a nation that obsesses over weather but this year has given us much to think about. I really wouldn’t want to predict what the second half of the summer into autumn will have in store but I do know that we all need to make changes to prevent unavoidable climate change becoming a global catastrophe.  It’s one very big reason why I’ve elected to be a cycling gardener rather than a man with a van.

 

Magnolias – prehistory in suburbia

alexandrina-magnolia-600x600Cycling around York over the last week has been a complete pleasure.  The sunshine and steadily rising mercury have really lifted the spirits after what felt like a never ending winter.   I couldn’t help feeling that Spring this year looked a little grey and colourless with plants that should normally be flowering not showing themselves. Then something seemed to happen, the daffodils on the city walls exploded into life and put on one of the best displays I’ve seen in years. It wasn’t only the daffs, everything seemed to suddenly wake up. It was as if the alarm had just sounded and the whole of nature bolted up, blinked and said ‘is it that time already ?’

Among the fashionably late to the party this year have been magnolias. Their flowering is brief but dramatic, a classic harbinger of spring. It’s been lovely to see so many finally reveal themselves from winter anonymity not least in my clients’ gardens where the consensus seems to be that they’re around three weeks later than usual.

They’ve developed an undeserved reputation over the years as something of a suburban staple and (like lilac) possibly a bit dull even downright naff. Fashions in gardening come and go and what most people who dismiss them don’t realise is just how long and fascinating their history is.

They were named in honour of the 17th/18th century French botanist Pierre Magnol at a time when there was only one type of magnolia grown in Britain the Magnolia virginiana which as its names suggests came from North America via a botanically minded missionary called John Bannister.  It was later discovered that  the Chinese have been cultivating magnolia type plants since at least the 7th century principally for medicinal use. But the plant itself traces its roots back to the cretaceous period a longevity that explains its distinctive large flowers and robust carpels. At the time bees were yet to evolve instead the ancestors of the magnolia were pollinated by large clumsy beetles.

file-20170731-22126-8ddii2In fact the oldest fossil of a flowering plant ever found suggests the ancestor of most of the plants in our garden probably  resembled a magnolia some 140 million years ago.

Given that kind of history shouldn’t every garden find room for one ?