Category Archives: Gardening Diary

Pastures New

After seven fantastic years my time as The York Cycling Gardener is coming to an end.

My wife Rachel has been offered a new job in Liskeard and we’ll be moving to south-East Cornwall in the early Spring of 2019.

Anyone who knows us will know that we love that part of the world. I was inspired to retrain in horticulture by some of the amazing Cornish gardens we’ve visited over the years, not least my beloved Heligan. It’s become a running joke with some of my clients that I tell them I’m going on holiday and they immediately respond  with “Cornwall ?”

I’ll still be around for a few more months and there’s plenty of winter work in the diary to see out not least apple tree pruning in January.

I had no clue how well my daft idea to garden by bicycle would take off when it first seemed like a possibility in 2011.  Over the past seven years I’ve met some lovely people, worked in some great gardens, got to know more about plants and horticulture and had plenty of laughs along the way. During that time I’ve gained some new friends and overcome a few challenges.  I’ve worn out a couple of bikes, several pairs of boots, four waterproofs and a small army of gardening gloves. I’ve left a trail of hand tools across the gardens of the city.

The next few months are likely to be hectic as we get ready for our move.  You don’t leave behind a business you’ve built up without some sadness but there’s always a time to move on. And this feels like the moment to embrace some new challenges.

Walk Out To Winter

It doesn’t seem like five minutes since we were all baking in what felt like endless heat. The summer was one of the hottest on record. Here in York temperatures in the high twenties and low thirties became the norm. It made for some challenging working conditions at times even if  I rarely had to don the waterproofs, grit my teeth and battle on through the rain.

The good weather continued into autumn and I started to feel I was going to make it to Christmas without too many occasions where I resembled a drowned rat.  The last few weeks of mild, wet weather have quickly put an end to that thought.

So with December finally here I’m enjoying the end of term feeling even if I’ve got jobs in the diary right up to the Christmas.  I get more time to catch up with my admin, read some gardening books and blogs and do all those jobs I never get time for in the summer.

Winter isn’t a completely dead season in the garden. There’s a lot going on out there. There’s even some colour to be had.  My camellia is flowering already, my  Clematis cirrhosa var. purpurescens ‘Freckles’ is covered with flower buds.

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The Cosmos have only just exhausted themselves after a late summer and autumn of hectic flowering, there’s a rose or two hanging on here and there, likewise a few lavatera flowers.  The hellebores are looking primed and ready for their moment in the precious February sun, green tips of  snowdrops are poking up here and there.

If you’re in need of an urgent colour injection there’s plenty of winter pansies and cyclamen around in garden centres/nurseries/ supermarkets.  Winter pansies in particular always impress me. They look so insubstantial and a little frail but put up with everything even the most extreme winters can throw at us. They issue their challenge to weather in yellows, white, purples and reds. Dot them around your garden like season long Christmas lights.

Planning ahead you might want to consider planting a patch of winter flowering heathers or a Japanese Quince. Sink the corms of winter aconites in a spot beneath a tree, likewise snowdrop bulbs.  Mahonia with their in your face yellow flowers shine like a beacon in the darkest months, the stems of dogwoods stand out against the grey.

It’s really hard to predict what the winter will have in store for us. This time last year the few days we spent in Newtondale by the North York Moors Railway line was crowned with the white stuff.WP_20171203_14_00_21_Pro 4

And it was still snowing when my Spring diary began in March.  If the early days of Winter set the tone for what’s to come then we can expect mild and wet.  Different winters present different challenges not least in a city where the water that falls in upland areas  and turns peat black has to pass through on its way out to the sea.

Whatever the winter has in store it’s a good time for gardeners to put up their feet a little and congratulate themselves on a job well done.  It won’t be long until there’s barely chance to draw breath again as the seasons roll relentlessly on.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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 ?

 

 

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.