Natural Support

I try to support plants with natural materials whenever possible,  whether its runner beans, sweet peas or border perennials.  I’ve had lots of fun creating a woven trellis for my sweet peas with the cobnut ( a type of hazel) prunings that I collected last week.  It’s something I’ve never done before, but I was dealing with a quite narrow space where there wasn’t room for the usual  wigwams and I’m rather pleased with the result which is both attractive and surprisingly sturdy.  If you can’t lay your hands on coppiced hazel, I have noticed that jute netting is available – not the same, but more discreet than plastic and it can be composted at the end of the season.natural polesnatural plant supportspeas neatly planted
Hen & Hammock also sent me some rather ingenious plant supports made from a chestnut paling threaded with wire. You simply hammer the paling in place and the wire provides support that will soon disappear as the plant grows. A clever, durable and simple idea. £8.50 from plant support

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Learning from the Experts

Learning from the Experts

camellia tied backVisiting a famous garden is not just (generally) a delightful experience – it can also be a masterclass in good gardening techniques. On my recent visit to Sissinghurst I was particularly impressed by the way that the evergreen Magnolia remained tight to the wall that it was growing against. Close examination revealed that any protruding branches had been discreetly tied back with twine– something I plan to emulate with my own magnolia.IMG_4235

Equally, during my visit to Great Dixter’s Spring Plant Fair, I made time for a wander round the garden. The traditional display round the front door was a mini-Keukenhof with a vivid display of spring bulbs, but I really liked the pots that were waiting in the wings. They reveal just how densely the bulbs are planted. Something worth remembering in the autumn.pots of spring blooms promise of tulips

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Spring Salads

SPRING SALADSThe first batch of salads are now of pickable size – and some of the leaves actually make it as far as the house -although at the moment most are picked a leaf at a time to relish as I work in the garden. I also have a row of the ‘Wasabi’ rocket from Thompson & Morgan growing between the broad beans and it really does have a powerful wasabi-type kick to it. From now on I will sow my salads in a shady spot outdoors (in pots) because I find germination slows right down if they are in the greenhouse which gets very warm during the day.  The same goes for spinach.

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Get That Wild Flower Look

Bulbs can be naturalised in grass or in borders to make them look like wild flowers. The usual thing to do is to plant carpets of a single coloured daffodil or crocus, but if you choose a number of different species the result will look far more ‘natural’.

snowdrops in full bloom

Snowdrops spread rapidly making them ideal for naturalising, but they are best planted ‘in the green’ which means dug up and transplanted after flowering. Planting them from bulbs at this time of year is not recommended.

The Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum nutans, also spreads quickly and can be planted as bulbs in the coming weeks. The silvery white star shaped flowers have a green backing and they do well in light shade under trees. At about 25cm tall they can make quite an impact.

For heavy, damp soils the summer Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, looks a bit like a massive snowdrop, reaching 60cm high. There’s also an even bigger variety which is quite easy to get hold of, called L. a. ’Gravetye Giant’.

snakeshead fritillariesSnakeshead fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, like the same heavy damp soils. In April and May, they produce nodding heads of delicate looking flowers in purpley maroon and, less frequently, white. For some reason, they’ll either love or hate your garden; there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with them.

Cream camassias flower later than the blue

Cream camassias flower later than the blue

Also flowering through late April and May are the Camassias which have star shaped flowers in spikes. The best for naturalising is the deep blue Camassia quamash, but cool years make them flower less well the following spring. One drawback is that you can’t cut the grass until the seed ripens at the end of July or they won’t spread.

Chionodoxa at the Cholmondeley Plant Fair

Chionodoxa at the Cholmondeley Plant Fair

The Glory of the Snow, Chionodoxa, grows to about 15cm and has star shaped flowers in blue, pink or white. It needs a well drained fertile soil and although it will grow in sun, it tends to get a bit fried, so it’s best to plant it in some shade.  Chionodoxa forbesii has blue flowers, C.f.’Pink Giant’ is a soft pink and C.sardensis is a strong blue reminiscent of hardy plumbago.

Bulbs can be naturalised in borders and woodland but by far the most popular setting is in grass. Once in, the bulbs can be left alone to spread and increase by seed or offsets – your patience will eventually be rewarded with a carpet of colour. You need to make sure that you either use bulbs that come up before the grass starts growing in spring or later flowering species which can then compete with grass. One way to naturalise bulbs is to throw them randomly onto the grass: Take one of those hand held bulb planters which in theory extracts a core of turf and soil, then spend days crawling round on your hands and knees… Fortunately, there is a better way.

  1. First you need to mow the grass so that it is still fairly short when the bulbs come up in spring. Next cut an ‘H’ shape into the ground about 5cm deep using a spade, or half moon edger which tends to be a little more accurate.
  2. Hold back the turf on either side and,depending on what types of bulb you will be planting, fork over and remove some of the soilif necessary. As a general rule, smaller bulbs like crocus will need 5cm of soil above their tips and larger bulbs will need 10cm.
  3. Throw a handful of bulbs into the hole and plant them where they fall, so that you don’t end up with evenly spaced bulbs in straight lines.
  4. Make sure each bulb is the right way up. Very gently rotate it to settle it into the soil and get rid of any air gap underneath. Don’t, however, force the bulb into the earth because it may get damaged.
  5. Put any soil which was removed back into the hole and fold back the flaps of turf. Gentle tread down the turf but don’t stamp on it.
  6. Don’t mow the grass for at least six weeks after the flowers have faded to allow time for them to build up their nutrient stores for the coming winter. This will ensure a dramatic display every year.

This article was provided by Mike James working together with friend and multi award winning landscaper Andy Sturgeon. Images provided by and edited by Stephanie Donaldson.

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