Friday 16th October 2020

Sing a song of seasons!

Something bright in all!

Flowers in the summer,

Fires in the fall!

(Robert Louis Stevenson)

This week the whole group met for another virtual gardening session on Zoom. The format still started with our old favourite, the

Plant Ident

Stalwarts for the winter months ahead featured this week. Good doers, so to speak. Evergreens, evergreys, everblues… We’re after shape and texture as well. Very designery.

Fatsia japonica

This one’s a real good doer. Great at the back of a shady border, but also magnificent in a big pot; grows to 2.5 – 4 m. Very architectural. Beautiful, glossy palmate leaves. Can be used as an indoor plant too. Produces interesting flowers in the autumn, slightly reminiscent of ivy flowers, which the RHS describe as ‘terminal compound umbels’. Prepare the soil well when planting. Can be prone to vine weevil (eurghh) – try treating with nematodes. Propagate from soft tip cuttings in the spring, or just go mad and buy one if you are after some instant impact. There’s another variety called ‘Spider’s Web’, which looks as if it’s been dusted with icing sugar.

Chamaerops humilis

A.k.a. the Dwarf Fan Palm, the most cold-hardy of all the palms and the only native European palm. Adds exotic flamboyance to any garden, emphasising a properly tropical vibe. Probably not best in a cottage garden setting, but placed in the right location, it’s a wowser – especially if there’s a small group of them. Can cope with a certain amount of wind, presumably because of its tough, fan-like leaves. At Garden House it’s in a pot in a north-facing situation and always looks good. There’s a blue form available too.

Euonymous fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’

A small, bushy evergreen shrub with a creamy-white margin around the leaves. Often develops pink highlights in the cold, winter months. Grows in most types of soils. Will climb if planted against a wall, and is also a good hedging plant. Easy to take cuttings from and responds well to being gently shaped or tightly clipped. Tough.

Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’

A variety of our native evergreen fern, the Soft Shield Fern. Now that we’re all shielding, surely this is one to try? In the Crocus catalogue it’s described as having ‘filigree-fine fronds that form a lacy rosette’. Fabuloso! Total textural triumph. Likes fertile, humus-rich soil and is good in a shady border where its wonderful shape can be appreciated, or, if you have that kind of garden, it would be marvellous in a woodland area. Can be propagated from bulbils which grow from the stem; pin the fronds down ensuring the bulbils are in contact with the damp compost, and new ferns will grow.

Phormium ‘Black Adder’


Apparently, Phormiums (New Zealand Flax) have a reputation for being rather thuggish. Keep them encased within the confines of an attractive pot, however, and you’ve got a magnificently structural statement plant. A container may be the way to go if you have chalky soil, as these flourish best in clay. ‘Black Adder’ has long dark leaves and doesn’t get too big – growing to around 1 m. Easy to maintain, does well on a north-facing site, looks exotic. Essential.

Soil types

Our task this week was to split into break-out Zoom rooms (I always thought a ‘break-out’ involved prisoners or spots) and share our thoughts on the pros and cons of different soil types. Vastly assisted by an elegant essay written by one of our colleagues, here is a summary:

All soils benefit from improvement, so a compost heap is a must if possible. Good, weed-free, well-rotted horse manure is worth seeking out (but don’t apply it too near to established plants as it will ‘burn’ them). Leaf mould is worth making as it improves soil texture. Mix all three together, apply to well-watered soil, and you’re rocking!

Clay soil

Heavy, sticky, hard to dig, wet, solid and cold in the winter; baked dry and cracked in the summer. Heartbreaking. Don’t work on it or walk on it in the winter as it’s easy to compact the wretched stuff. Made up of small, fine particles. Takes time to warm up in the spring.

But. It’s more fertile than many other soils – and a wide range of trees, shrubs, roses, climbers and many bulbs are easier to grow in it.

Improving clay soils can be done by: digging in plenty of organic matter; adding grit, sand or gravel, which helps to open up the structure; using raised beds to assist drainage and avoid compaction; and (best of all) adopting a no-dig approach.

Top plants: Roses, Ribes sanguineum, Malus, Viburnum, Euphorbia, Mahonia japonica, , Hydrangea, Sorbus, Geranium

Chalky soil

As on the South Downs. Highdown Gardens is a good example.

Can be light or heavy, depending on location, and is characterised by the quantity of calcium carbonate present. It’s alkaline, so will not support ericaceous plants that need acid soil conditions to thrive. Generally speaking, this type of soil is shallow, very free-draining and low in fertility. Best to relish and cherish chalk, if this is your lot; go with the flow and plant accordingly. Things like Lavandula, Geranium, Ceanothus, Campanula, Clematis and Dianthus will do fine.

Sandy soil

Derak Jarman’s garden is certainly an extreme example of sandy soil, but he succeeded in growing a range of interesting plants even in these conditions. Although easy to cultivate and work, these soils are low in nutrients, dry out quickly and are often acidic ( the Fens). They’re very free draining and liable to be washed away by wind and/or rain. On the other hand, they do warm up earlier in the spring . Adding loads of organic matter helps to bind the light, loose sand into more fertile crumbs. Fertilisers are often necessary to assist growth.

Top plants: Lavandula, Buddleia, Choisya ternata, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Verbena bonariensis

Silty soil

Intermediate sized particles typify this soil and it has a light, grainy texture. Possibly one of the better soils to have, (apart from loam), although it may suffer from wind erosion. Organic matter will improve what is already a good base and also help to prevent waterlogging and compaction.

Top plants: Cornus, Hellebores, Galanthus – but there are many others

In all cases, research the best plants for your particular location. Don’t fight nature, choose the right plant for the right place. Or use pots.

Jobs for the week

Succour your succulents and ensure they are in a dry/sheltered spot over the winter. Too much rain will drown them. Maybe take them into a conservatory or greenhouse.

Earth up leeks

This will help to produce lovely, long white stems. These leeks can be lifted as and when needed by the kitchen staff

Check Chrysanthemums

C. ‘Ruby Mound’ growing in the Garden House greenhouse border.

Begin to lift Dahlias for overwintering

At Garden House, the dahlias are taken out before the cold weather bites to make room for other plantings.  Remove the plants from the soil, digging deeply to ensure that the tubers are kept in a clump. Cut back the top growth, as shown above, and store in a cool, dry place to allow the tubers to dry off (but not dessicate).  Keep the right labels with the right tubers!

Meanwhile… a dark cupboard not far away…

where the Hyacinth bulbs were stashed a couple of weeks ago…..

Look what’s happening

They’re putting their roots down

It’s a miracle!

I wonder if there’s any space for me in that cupboard?

The annual bulb-planting bonanza will start very soon. Rest up and prepare yourselves!

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