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Garden visiting

I have recently come back from 2 weeks in the UK to find that as I expected, the weed growth has been phenomenal while I was away.  I’ve spent  a  week weeding the rose and lavender borders in the front garden, and the beds around the terrace at the back.  Every day new and exciting tulips have been coming out.  Worth all the effort of planting them in the autumn!

The next week was too hot to do much in the garden during the main part of the day. However, it was wonderful to see the trees coming into leaf during the week, when they were largely still bare on the Monday. The flowering cherry looks stunning in its brief period of glory.

Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory
Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory

Whilst in London I visited Kew Gardens and Myddelton House in Enfield, and then staying with a friend in Buckinghamshire we visited Chenies Manor and Hughenden Manor. The weather was dreadful when we were at Kew and we got soaked running between  glasshouses. However the Davies Alpine House and Princess of Wales Conservatory were full of beautiful plants and plenty of colour.

Myddelton House

Myddelton House garden

I had never been to Myddelton House before, and it is a beautiful spring garden. It was the home of E.A. Bowles (1865-1954) who was a famous gardener, plantsman and plant breeder, and also the vice president of the RHS from 1926 to 1954. There are many plants named by him or after him, including Viola ‘Bowles’s Black’, Erisymum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, Crocus chrysanthus ‘ E.P. Bowles’, and Crocus chrysanthus ‘E.A. Bowles’ was named for him, Iris reticulata ‘Cantab’,Philadelphus ‘Bowles’s Variety’, Bowles’s golden sedge Carex elata ‘Aurea’, and Bowles’s golden grass Milium effusum ‘Aureum’.

Appropriately for the garden of someone Myddelton House garden 2who was so dedicated to bulbs, the garden is full of daffodils, Crocuses and snowdrops.

An interesting area is the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ which contains unusual and bizarre plants, such as ‘Prunus laurocerasus ‘Camellifolia’ and the twisted hazel Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’. There are also some interesting glasshouses.

 

In this area I also visited Broomfield Park in Palmers Green where my friend June Dawes is one of the team of volunteers responsible for maintaining the fabulous collection of plants in the restored Victorian conservatory.

In Buckinghamshire I visited Chenies Manor and Hughenden Manor, both of which have interesting walled gardens. Chenies Manor was the better garden with many lovely spring bulbs, whereas Hughenden which was the home of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli did not have a very interesting garden, unusually for a National Trust house. However the house itself was fascinating and surprisingly not that large for such a prominent man.

 

 

What’s happening in March

 

Dividing Irises

 

IrisesThe irises I discovered in my garden between the country hedge and cut-back conifer have been waiting to be divided since last summer. Now at last the ground is soft enough to lift and replant them and it is no longer raining.  The gardening books tell you to cut between the tubers with a spade.  In fact I found the pieces came apart quite easily and replanted them, not  too deeply, the tubers need to be at ground level, in 5 or 6 different places in the front garden.  It will be exciting to see whether they flower this year, and what colour they are.

Pruning fruit trees

Fan shaped fruit tree.jpg
Fan shaped fruit tree

The majority of fruit trees in this garden I have planted myself, and they are trained shapes – some U-shaped cordons (apples and pears) and what I hope will be fan shaped apricot, nectarine, 2 cherries, 3 plums and a quince.  As fan-shaped trees are very expensive to buy, I bought bare root trees in November 2016 and am training them myself.  It’s early days but if it works, as they were only 8-10 euros each it will be a good saving on the 100-150 euros charged for older ready-trained trees.

They are all pruned in the summer, so the only fruit trees for winter pruning are the 2 small apple trees which were already in the garden.  Although I had about 20 fruit trees in my  garden and allotment in London, I have always found pruning fruit trees a challenge as they never quite look like the illustrations in the books! I tried to concentrate on cutting out dead and crossing growth, and creating an open bowl type shape.  Time will tell whether I did it properly!

Red squirrel
Red squirrel

Last year I had about 20 apples from one tree and none at all from the other.  I also had to tie on tiny fleece bags around each small fruit, as the previous year all my tiny apples disappeared overnight.  I suspect squirrels- as I have an oak wood behind my house there must be a lot of squirrels, although I have hardly ever seen them.  Of course they are red squirrels here, and very shy- most of mine are nearly black, as they are melanistic.

Melanistic red squirrel
Melanistic red squirrel

So different from the grey squirrels in my garden in London, which were so fearless they would practically break into the house in search of food!

Moving shrubs

Pyracantha hedge
Pyracantha hedge

In front of part of my front garden there is a large pyracantha hedge. It is fearsome to cut; it takes the people who cut it about a day and they are battling the sharpest thorns known to humankind. However the white flowers are very pretty in spring and the red berries in autumn keep the birds fed for weeks.  The hedge is so dense that many birds nest in there and at the moment the hedge is alive with their singing- perhaps nest building or establishing territories.

Anything planted less than 3 metres from the hedge seems to do very badly – especially after a dry summer like last year.  I have just moved a rose which I planted too close to the hedge.  I was also going to move an existing Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush) which has never done very well there, but it seems to have died over the winter. I will look at it again in a couple of weeks, if you scrape the bark  there are some green stems, showing life, but it is not producing buds or leaves.

Birds

Hawfinch
Hawfinch

I always get interesting winter visitors in this garden. I have always had a lot  of bird feeders and in London I was part of the RSPB London House Sparrow Project which aimed to increase the number of successfully fledged house sparrows by feeding live mealworms during the breeding period. It was interesting having a fridge full of live mealworms, but I grew to recognise ‘chirping males’ (the alpha males of the house sparrow world) and loved to see the fledglings being fed.

Here I have had up to 40 different species of birds in  the garden, sometimes just for a few days or weeks. As well as bramblings and siskins this winter, I have had a lot of hawfinches, up to 12 at a time. In the UK they are normally only found in Scotland, but they are more widespread this year. I understand that it has been very cold further north in their usual winter areas in Scandinavia, and they have moved further south in Europe.

Pruning Cornus and other winter stems

Cornus sericea'Flaviramea'
Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’

Plants which are grown for their winter stem colour need to be hard pruned at the end of winter, so that they produce good coloured new growth. These include Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (red) and Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ (yellow) which I have in my garden. The red Cornus in  particular has lovely variegated leaves in summer. The yellow Cornus is planted with a yellow evergreen grass, Hakenechloa macra ‘Aureola’ and Mahonia aquifolium which has scented yellow winter flowers.

The hard pruning should start after the first 2 to 3 years, to allow the plants to establish and I have decided to leave mine to their third year. It’s great to have the shining colours standing out against the dark background of the oak wood. Once they are pruned, you can use the stems in decorations.

Cornus alba 'Sibirica'
Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’

 

Tidying up herbaceous plants and some travelling plants

After what seems like months of rain and cold weather, today was at last a sunny day with no wind. Everything needs doing at once, but having finished pruning the roses and hydrangeas, I decided to spend some time tidying up  the beds and pots around the terrace behind the house. There is a herb bed at the side, I cut back some dead pieces of sage, took out a dead tarragon plant and cut back the lemon verbena – it always grows back strongly and makes a lovely airy plant giving height to the bed. Also it’s good for tea and flavouring desserts.

Next I removed dead annual plants and weeds from the terracotta pots.

There is a long bed running along the outside edge of the terrace, the terrace is elevated giving great views of the Dordogne valley.  At the other side of the terrace from the herb bed is a short bed with one hydrangea and some lavender plants. This hydrangea has really suffered in the recent hot summers and I think there may be pipes below it, meaning there is not much room for roots.  The lavenders are also past their best and I may renew this bed completely.  However, it is lovely to see the bees, butterflies and elephant hawkmoths in the lavender when you’re sitting at the table.

Gaura lindheimeri 'Whirling Butterflies'

Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’

The long bed below the terrace has 6 pink hydrangeas, and originally when I moved in 4 years ago, 2 salvias, one being Hot Lips, the other a red one, and some white and pink Gaura lindheimeri. The Gaura is a great plant which tolerates hot dry weather and winter wet.

Penstemon 'Sour Grapes'

Penstemon ‘Sour Grapes’

Anyone who thinks plants can’t travel should see this bed.  The Gaura plants have travelled down to the side of the swimming pool, the red Salvia has died, and ‘Hot Lips’ is struggling, I think due to the droughts in the last 2 summers, despite watering.  However, mysteriously, a red hot poker (Kniphofia) and a very healthy Penstemon, possibly ‘Sour Grapes’, have appeared.  Clearly quite a lot of plants have been planted here and some of them have been dormant until the Gaura and Salvias gave them more space.

Salvia 'Hotlips'

Salvia ‘Hotlips’

I cut back the Salvia and will fertilise it, hooping it will make new growth, and then cut back the dead herbaceous growth on the Gauras down to ground level.

I have had a similar surprise at the side of the house, where the big mixed country hedge to the adjacent vinefield was cut back last year, as was a low spreading conifer at the side of the front garden, to reveal a clump of Irises, which must have been hidden there for years.  Unfortunately I didn’t see them flower, so don’t know what colour they are.  The ground went from being much too hard and dry to move them, to much too wet and boggy, so I am going to have to  split them up and move them to other locations jin the garden now, before it gets too hard again! The correct time to do this would have been after flowering in the summer. However I think somebody said that the right time to do something in the garden is when you have time to do it!

 

Winter in the garden

IMG0153A
IMG0189AThe weather can be frustrating at this time of year, especially during the wet winter we are experiencing in south west France.  My garden, which is largely heavy clay, and exposed to the wind at the top of the coteaux near the river Dordogne, is completely sodden at the moment after some 2 months of rain.

If we have a rare sunny day,or a clear period between showers, it is tempting to rush out and start doing something -anything- in the garden.  However it’s important not to walk on or try and work the soil while it is really wet, as this damages the soil structure, and especially if it is clay soil, it will become really compacted.

Now that the worst of the frosts and snow are probably past, it is a good time to prune roses and hydrangeas and tidy up herbaceous plants.

Pruning roses

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In my garden, I have several large shrub roses growing against the post and wire fence adjoining the small wood behind my garden. They were already here when I bought the house, and are quite large and spreading.  I keep them fairly large to contend with all the vegetation coming through the fence and concentrate on pruning out dead or diseased wood and tying them in.

 

In my front garden,which is more formal than the rest of the garden, I have planted a mixture of David Austin English roses, and old varieties of single and repeat flowering shrub roses, in shades of deep red, purple, pink and white, separated by lavender bushes.

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The single flowering roses require minimal pruning, by up to a third of their size, as well as cutting out dead and diseased and very spindly growth. Prune with a diagonal cut just above a bud.

The English roses and repeat-flowering shrub roses can be pruned by one third to two thirds, again also cutting out dead, diseased and spindly growth.

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With all these roses, I am aiming for a good shape with a fairly even height over the bush. After pruning, I apply rose fertiliser, watered in if it doesn’t rain, and mulch around the plants, not touching the stem. This year I am mulching with bonfire ash as I have a lot of it and it is high on  potash and good for flowering and fruiting plants. You can also use garden compost or manure.

Hydrangeas and herbaceous plants

I have several hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) in my garden, 7 pink hydrangeas in the bed around the terrace at the back, and one white hydrangea in a half wine barrel.  As hydrangeas need a moist soil, I was surprised to find that they do very well, but I do have to water them in periods of drought, and I also mulch them with ashes from my woodburner.

They are easy to prune, having left the old flowerheads on over the winter to protect the buds from frost.  Just prune down to the new fat flower bud at the top of each stem, and prune out any very thin or dead stems at ground level.

You canalso clear the dead growth above herbaceous plants and put on the compost heap.