Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Garden Wildflowers

Wildflowers In The Garden

'If it's a native of this country it'll be a doddle to grow it', seems a logical way of thinking about wildflowers. However, though we are expert at growing exotic things like Dahlias and a multitude of other species, we often fall short in our ability to grow something that proliferates in our own countryside (unless we think of marestail and dandelions - I'm the world champion at them without even trying). One of the main showgrounds of wildflowers is the field regularly cropped by  the farmer for hay. The reason for this is that each year the grass grows, using up nutrient from the soil. Then it is cut and removed for use on the farm, leaving a soil progressively less rich in nutrients - especially nitrogen. This is a boon to the wildflowers, because grass thrives on nitrogen and is subsequently less able to out -compete the other plants.

Hyde Hall Wildflower Meadow

Bearing this in mind, our wildflower patch should not be treated to the constant addition of organic matter and blood, fish and bone butties so loved by the foreigners, but actually allowed to become depleted of these goodies. Copying the hay farmer is one way of achieving this, but obviously that takes time, so it is sometimes recommended that we remove the topsoil to a depth of about six inches and plant in the relatively poor subsoil. This can be a massive task on a large plot, so the slower method may be used and helped along by the use of plants like hay rattle, which is semi-parasitic on grasses and consequently weakens them. An attractive plant in its own right, the ripe seeds do actually rattle when the pods are shaken. Other help is also at hand in places like The National Wildflower Centre in Court Hey Park, near Liverpool, where they display different growing techniques and mediums, while also offering courses and adult training.

Hay Rattle
Anyone not convinced about the merits of wildflowers should visit gardens like Harlow Carr in Yorkshire and Hyde Hall in Essex, where the displays can be mind-blowing. However, for me, the advantage of wildflowers is not simply in the aesthetics they provide, but in something far deeper: for example, at Fletcher Moss where I used to work, we changed the mowing regime in the meadow from fortnightly to once a year in late summer. The result was a proliferation of cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis). However, not only did we get the pretty flower but it was soon noticed that there were far more orange tip butterflies around. Orange tips rely very much on cuckooflower for feeding and egg laying, so the wildflower had encouraged the insect. If there are plenty of insects, birds are attracted to feed on them and if these insect-eating birds are around, there is also the chance that their own predators, like sparrowhawks and kestrels will be attracted.

Cuckoo Flower
Orange Tip Butterfly

And so we learn the lesson that all living things depend on other living things and the more we garden with nature rather than opposed to it, the richer our experience of the natural world will be.

Sunday, 26 August 2012


Hedge Your Bets

There are really very few hard and fast rules about gardening. Take hedges, for example: people think of them and perhaps privet comes to mind, or hawthorn, or beech or..... well, you get the idea. One of the most effective hedges I've come across was in a council house garden in Manchester. Instead of consisting of just green privet (like the rest in the street ) it was a mixture of golden privet and beech. This had the effect of creating a contrast between the yellow of the privet and the green of the beech in summer. In winter the beech leaves die but remain on the plant, giving a new contrast of yellow against a warm brown, so that there is a year-round colour interest combined with privacy. This sort of effect can be copied by planting variegated plants and different coloured conifers. The only thing to beware of is that the chosen plants have similar growth rates, avoiding the creation of something that looks like the North Sea on a bad day.

Yew and variegated holly (click to enlarge)
Purple and green beech
  Another way of adding interest to a yew or Chamaecyparis hedge is to grow a climber up it which will give some colour variation. The classic example of this is the flame creeper (Tropaeolum speciosum), which follows flower colour with attractive blue fruits.

flame creeper

flame creeper fruit

It is worth understanding what is happening when you cut a hedge: put simply, the plants used are trees, and the leading shoot of the tree has the object of competing with other trees for light. To improve its chances of getting above the others, it sends a hormone down to lower laterals which inhibits their growth, enabling it to forge ahead. If you cut the hedge, you remove that leading growth and the supply of inhibiting hormone stops, enabling the lower branches to grow, so that they bush out to give a nice thick barrier.  

We've all noticed the lovely conifer hedge which suddenly goes brown and we come to the conclusion that its got some dread disease. In some cases this is true but often the 'dread disease' is the comedian who has trimmed it back into old wood. Most conifers, yew being an exception, don't regenerate from old, inner wood, so beware of being too enthusiastic with the shears. Beware also of the cowboy who comes to your door offering to 'do the garden'. 'Do' is the operative word in many of these cases, where this so called gardener doesn't know a rare orchid from an oak tree and is destined to devastate your conifer hedge.

Thanks for visiting and I would love to hear your feedback.



Saturday, 25 August 2012

Snail Problem

Mystery Culprit

      Hi, this is my first blog, I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting:

      A Clematis growing next to our front door was getting progressively weaker. There were a few holes in the leaves but this didn't seem to be the real problem and I thought that, in spite of going through a summer of record rainfall, the roof overhang was sheltering the plant and  causing dryness at the roots. So I watered it. This produced no change, so I tried slug control, with an equally dazzling lack of success. It was only by chance that I noticed, on returning home after dark one night, that the wall behind the plant had developed a pebble-dash effect. A closer look revealed the source of my problem: snails - about a quarter of the world population. They had bypassed my slug control by climbing around the wall from a bed at the front of the house and tended to be feeding on the outer parts of stems rather than leaves, preventing the movement of water, sugar and nutrients around the plant.

      This was a graphic example of why measures to control slugs often don't work with snails, because pellets, or the natural control using eelworms (Nemaslug), are used on the ground, while the snails are absailing onto the plants from somewhere else, laughing at the gardener's ignorance.

      Needless to say, this lot didn't laugh, although one did go WHEEEE! as it sailed across the road.