Category Archives: Gardening

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

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 ?

 

 

Laying on a (pollinator) buffet

IMG_0077

 

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.

9815241_m

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;

RHS_Bee_YELLOW-REGISTERED

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

primrose-at-base-of-hedge-r-becker-wtml

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.