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 ?

 

 

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Laying on a (pollinator) buffet

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Outside catering always looks quite challenging. Doubtless you’ve been to wedding receptions and family gatherings where the food has either been terrible or insufficient. For our bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects life is one big outside buffet. Or at least it should be if those of us with gardens are doing our job properly.

There has been growing interest over the last few years in planting to benefit bees sparked by some startling statistics regarding their numbers. Across Europe we’ve lost over half of our bees in the past twenty or so years. In England the drop is one of the most dramatic. There’s all kinds of reasons cited for this but one that we can all do something about is what  we plant in our gardens. Where once nectar heavy cottage garden plants were the order of the day for most gardeners, the second half of the twentieth century saw the growth in popularity in more stylised gardens complete with hybrid plants. Add to that the general loss of urban gardens for car parking and building and the spread laid on for bees has been dramatically denuded. Pollinators play a huge part in feeding the nation and fueling the economy. Across China and the US ,the twin drivers of global growth , pollinator numbers have seen a rapid decline. The insect charity Buglife suggest that if current trends continue we won’t have enough to pollinate the crops we need to feed ourselves.

Thankfully that’s beginning to change but we all need to play our part. Even if you don’t have a garden you can plant a few pollinator friendly plants in pots on a balcony or outside your front door. If you’ve a backyard you can fill it with plants in pots. When we lived in a terraced house with just a backyard the walls were covered in Campanula portenshchlagiana the Dalmatian bellflower.

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It was all over the back alley and popping up on outhouse roofs. In the summer there would be an explosion of bluish purple flowers that acted like a magnet to bees. When our backyard was filled with pollinator friendly plants what had been a dead, quite hard concrete space felt like it was part of the natural world again. Campanula self seeded into our own pots and has traveled with us to our current house where it’s currently going native across the neighbourhood

There’s few things finer (and satisfying!) on a sunny day when the garden is flowering than seeing bees at work across the garden. And it’s very easy to attract them. The more pollinator plants you plant the more you will see. My own small garden is geared towards wildlife and I try now not to add anything that isn’t going to be of benefit to pollinators. They help to animate a garden.

Where to start ? There’s lots of info available on the web and the RHS as always is a good place to begin;

RHS Perfect For Pollinators

To help you when you’re buying plants look for the RHS Perfect For Pollinators badge;

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If you’re buying from small nurseries (and I’d heartily recommend that you do) then look out for wallflowers, lavender, nepeta (catmint), purple loosestrife, foxgloves, hollyhocks, jacob’s ladder, honeysuckle, agastache, monarda, salvias, scabious,  marjoram and  thyme.  If you’ve only got the space to plant one tree then make it a rowan. Ideally you should ultimately aim for something to be in flower that’s of interest to pollinators all year round.  Pesticides should be avoided and if you can build or buy a box for solitary bees to nest then you’re heading towards bee-topia.  Brunswick Organic Nursery in Bishopthorpe usually have a smashing range of pollinator friendly plants available all raised without the use of chemicals.

Amongst the varieties of bees that visit our garden in the summer our favourites are the leaf-cutter bees that have taken up residence in the ventilation pipes in our outside walls. They take bites from the rose leaves and drag them into the pipes behind themselves to help keep things cosy.

 

Banking on Primroses

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And in the wood, where often you and I,
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie…

William Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

My Spring/Summer timetable began with rain, biting cold winds and a winter that has felt like it would never end. At times like these as a gardener you keep faith in the turning seasons and the inevitable pull of summer.  It might be cold, the pace of things in the garden might currently be slow but it’s the calm before the storm.  Give it a few weeks and the pace will be hectic, everything bursting with life and demanding attention. Despite the cold over the last few weeks the sun that’s broken through the clouds has sometimes had real warmth in it. I ended last week in shirt sleeves for the first time this year.

I also ended the week planting primroses. The wild British primrose – Primula vulgaris – has suffered over the last few decades as its traditional habitats in woodlands, on verges and beneath hedgerows came under threat. Also, its increased popularity led to people helping themselves to the wild variety – a definite no-no. Traditionally they would be picked as gifts for parents at Easter and used to decorate churches.  It takes its name from the latin, Prima Rosa ‘the first rose’ despite being as far from a rose as you’re likely to find. In different counties of England it is also referred to as butter rose, early rose, Easter rose, golden rose and lent rose. And lucky old Devon has it as the county flower.

The market in cultivated garden varieties in all kinds of colours and degrees of flowering longevity is vast but to my mind nothing really beats the warm, buttery sunshine of the wild variety on an early Spring day when other flowers are still thin on the ground. Because they flower through to the beginning of June they serve as a bridge between winter and the profusion of summer.

The wild varieties themselves appear in a variety of shades from pale cream to deep yellow. If you allow them to establish themselves in your garden over time you’ll begin to see variations appearing.

One thing I really like about the wild primrose when its planted in a domestic garden is how it serves as a thread between the green spaces beyond the garden wall and the cultivated patch. Wild varieties of daffodils do the same and here in York the banks of the city walls are currently coming alive with them.  Often when I’m out and about at this time of year I’ll glance down and see a patch of primroses appearing in the least promising of urban locations. It’s always a pleasure to plant them in my clients’ gardens and even more of one to see them naturalise.

 

 

Lenten Rose

hellebore_pink_frost.jpgThis time of year flowers are a little thin on the ground in these northern climes. There’s snowdrops and winter aconites breaking through the earth, and buds are starting to form on the early spring flowers but the real stars of the show at this time of year are hellebores.

Popularly known as Christmas or Lenten roses (if anyone knows of a hellebore that flowers for Christmas please let me know !?) they’re part of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup or crowfoot) family and flower in shades of white and burgundy.  Their flowers hang down demurely and can sometimes be hidden by the large leaves that developed the previous year. The trick here is to carefully remove the leaves before the buds break.

If you visit your local garden centre you’ll see plenty for sale at this time of year.  I find them relatively expensive to buy fully grown as a result of other flowering options being so thin on the ground. The good news is they’re very easy to grow from seed and once you have one or two you will never be without new ones springing forth.

They take two to three years to flower when grown from seed but for less than the price of a coffee you can have a garden full of hellebores brightening your January and February days and flowering on until Spring.  Buy a packet, sprinkle them in semi-shade and watch hordes of them start to emerge from the soil. When they’re fully grown they can easily be relocated around your garden.

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The ones in my garden that have prospered have had virtually no intervention from me. I leave them to make their own way. It’s amazing how they find the right spot to be seen from the house.

 

Xyella fastidiosa – a ‘game changing’ disease

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There has been a small flurry of media reports over the past few months about what has been reported as a ‘game changing’ plant disease that threatens commercial horticulture in the UK.

Xyella fastidiosa is endemic in America but until a few years ago wasn’t known to be present in Europe.  Then in 2013 whole olive groves in southern Italy were being wiped out and Xyella fastidiosa was discovered to be the culprit. It was later found  in Corsica and mainland France.  Centuries old olive groves have been destroyed by the disease.

It works through infecting the water carrying systems within the host plant – the xylem- (hence its name) spreading via insects that feed on the xylem such as leafhoppers and spittlebugs. It inhibits the transmission of water and nutrients through the plant which is ultimately starved to death.  Its visible symptoms include things like necrotic leaves, leaf scorch, wilt and drop which are indistinguishable from other diseases making it tricky to spot.  If found in the UK host plants within 100m would be destroyed and there would be restrictions on movement of plants within a 5km radius for five years – obviously causing considerable problems for surrounding nurseries and garden centres.

Experts believe that it’s most likely to appear in the UK via the importation of infected plant material rather than via insects and as a result commercial growers and retailers are likely to spot it first. As a precautionary measure the RHS will this year only allow British-grown hebe, rosemary, lavender, oleander, olives, polygala, coffee, Spanish broom and prunus at its shows including the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show.

Xyella fastidiosa has a wide range of host plants and a comprehensive list can be found here. 

One means by which to restrict the chances of the disease reaching these shores and then spreading is to support local growers. The shorter the distance a plant has to travel the better for the environment, the less chance there is of disease spreading. What’s more you get to support good local businesses run by people who are passionate about what they do.

 

Winter Fruit Tree Pruning

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The backbone of my January diary is made up of fruit tree pruning.  I like this time of year for that reason – with the rest of the garden sleeping I get chance to take my time over some lovely trees be they small and well trained in suburban gardens or the remnants of ancient orchards. I sometime fantasise about a life spent looking after commercial orchards but for now I’m quite happy with the few dozen fruit trees in my charge. This month will see me giving a light trim to a few trees I’ve cared for over the last few years and undertaking more substantial renovation pruning jobs on one or two older ones.

It’s very satisfying work and what’s more…I get to climb trees..

Why prune ?  Neglected trees eventually grow congested and become less productive over time.  It’s very satisfying to see a tree that has only produced half a dozen fruits for a few years become bountiful.  Pruning takes place at this time of year when the tree is dormant and before the new growing season begins in earnest.  Good fruit tree pruning often feels like solving a puzzle, you’re trying to work out how to bring out the best in each tree which if neglected will have grown in its own idiosyncratic way over time.

If you’ve got some fruit trees  that you think might be in need of a prune don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Here’s one of the apple trees I look after in all its fruiting glory

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Happy New Gardening Year !

New-Year-1 As the year turns I always start to anticipate the gardening year ahead with a sense of excitement.  Each year invariably brings new clients , new gardens, things to learn, plants to get to know, dogs and cats to meet and miles to put in on the bike.

Before that though I’ve some time this week to do some work in my own garden. It often gets a little neglected when I’m flat out gardening during the summer months. What I’ve discovered is if I start the year fully on top of it then I stand a better chance of it staying that way as the year progresses.

Being passionate about wildlife gardening I can get away with a slightly shaggier look, but the abundant perennial style of planting I love does mean it can sometimes get carried away with itself.

This week I’ll be planting a Ribston Pippin apple tree and under planting it with a selection of bulbs.

When it’s dank, dark and dreary outside this is definitely the time of year to start imagining what your garden might look like in the summer. Anticipation of what’s to come is one of the great pleasures of being a gardener.