Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Plants for dry places

A Hint of Clint
Cacti in flower (/Wythenshawe Park Glasshouses)
      A few years ago some friends in Knutsford rang and asked if I could take their dogs for a walk. They were both ill in bed (the friends, not the dogs) and weren't able to go out, so I was happy to help. I arrived at their house dressed in a long coat and a Stetson I'd bought in America. I felt I looked like Clint Eastwood but my wife was more of the persuasion that I looked like a pillock. Women can say things like this, but a bloke is best advised to lie when asked something like 'does my bum look big in this?'

      When I arrived in Knutsford the rain was deluging, running off the brim of the Stetson in a constant stream as I knocked at the door. One of the dogs was an alsation and the other was a small mongrel. I looped a lead over each wrist and was given a pooper scooper. To the uninitiated, this is a sort of miniature of those things with two plastic rectangles hinged in the middle which are used to pick up leaves. However, my objective was not leaves. I was also given a Marks and Spencer bag for the product of the pooper scooper (Knutsford is quite posh - it'd have been a Tesco bag in Wythenshawe) and thus armed we set off down the road.

      We walked for some distance without the dogs feeling the need to put the scooper to the test, and I was becoming optimistic about the chances of reaching open country so I could let them off to relieve themselves where it wouldn't be a problem. However, it was towards the end of the built-up area that the alsation chose to display his expertise in bowel movements. He did it on the top of a low,double-skinned wall which was attractively planted along the middle with a display of alpines. How he achieved this is hard to explain and anyone coming along a few minutes later would think it had been done from a trapeze. Anyway, this was closely observed by a number of people sitting in the bay window of the house, having afternoon tea.

      I tried not to panic and flourished the pooper scooper in one hand and the M&S bag in the other, sure that both artifacts would impress the diners. Then I delved down dextrously and scooped up what proved to be a wet one with the intention of depositing it in the bag. Unfortunately, at this point the mongrel, attached to my bag wrist,  saw a cat across the road and made a dash for it.

      In one of the 'Dollar' spaghetti westerns Clint disappears in a cloud of smoke, only to dramatically reappear and blast the badmen to kingdom come. I disappeared in a cloud alright, but it wasn't smoke.

      And so we continued hurriedly down the road, having put the afternoon tea people off their chocolate cake. After their earlier reticence, the dogs now began to work on the old Magnus Magnusson principle of  'I've started, so I shall continue' and the M&S carrier bulged.

      I'm not really a religious person but I remember praying that day: 'please God', I said, 'if I ever get mugged for my bag, make it today'.

      Clint, of course, will always be associated with Westerns and Westerns bring desert cacti to mind. I'm not going to spend a lot of time looking at them but it is true to say that they are one of the easiest plants for the lazy gardener, needing minimum watering and feeding. Cacti generally thrive in a position of full sun (with a few exceptions like Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) which grow naturally on shady rocks or tree branches in humid conditions). They can't be grown outdoors in winter because freezing temperatures combined with moisture will cause them to rot and die. However, give them a dry position, like a cold south facing porch, and the low temperatures will be no problem. Where they grow in the desert the thermometer can drop extremely low but the ground will remain dry - reproduce these conditions by giving minimum winter watering, and you can't go far wrong. They're also quite happy in the extreme heat, generated behind unshaded glass, which would cause many houseplants to shrivel.
Hyde Hall Dry Garden
      Maybe we don't have desert conditions in the garden, not in the U.K. anyway, but a sandy soil can certainly make it difficult for some plants. Sand consists of hard silica grains impervious to water, meaning that it simply drains through, creating dry growing conditions. This is recognised as being a difficulty encountered by many gardeners and gardens like the Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex and Hyde Hall Gardens, also in Essex, have areas specifically created to show off plants suited to dry soils.

      Most good gardening books will have lists of plants suited to specific conditions so I'm not going to churn one out myself but I'd like to look at three good examples:
Iberis sempervirens at Bloom's Nurseries, Bressingham
      Iberis sempervirens 'Masterpiece'  is an evergreen form of candytuft I bought in bloom last summer and it has remained in flower right over Christmas. Its height is about a foot and it can spread as much as three foot. The flowers are predominantly white but have purplish unopened buds. The area it's planted in is about ten feet from large birch trees which take all the water from the soil. Other plants I've put there need constant watering and top dressing with copious amounts of organic matter to act as a sponge and retain moisture, but the Iberis thrives in a little oasis of relative drought. It is ideal as a front-of-border plant but would work equally well on a wall or rockery.
Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) on wall at Chartwell
      Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is another dry-garden plant I'm enthusiastic about. Its origins are Mediterrranean, having been introduced to the U.K. before the 1600's and subsequently naturalising to the point that you can find it growing wild almost anywhere. High up on walls is a favourite situation, illustrating just how happy it is with extremely dry conditions. It actually has a shorter life if put in an area where it receives plenty of water, and the over-enthusiastic gardener can kill it with kindness. Give a plant its natural conditions and, usually, it won't let you down. My original plant just appeared - I didn't plant it, or at least I don't remember doing so. Now it seeds itself prolifically with the result that most of my friends now have one.
Helianthemum (roots in dry soil)
      Rock rose (Helianthemum) is classed as an evergreen  sub-shrub and can be found growing in calcareous areas of the U.K. The wild plants are either white or yellow but many hybrids are now available in pink, orange, bronze and yellow. Again, it is ideal on a rockery or wall, with its height of eighteen inches and spread of two foot.

      Whatever your garden aspect or soil type, there are always plants which have adapted to those conditions, so it is important to read up before forking out for additions which may disappoint.

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