Thursday, 31 August 2017

End of Month Review August 2017

This August has been a bit strange weather-wise.  It has been a bit chilly, rather rainy and then decides to throw in a heat wave just in time for the bank-holiday.  August is also, in my view,  a bit of an odd month for gardening: much is at its peak whilst much is past its best and much are just struggling to be.

The big job to be done this August was some hedge cutting.
The front hedge has gone from being around ten foot tall to about four foot.  It took a couple of days but I am really pleased it is now done.  I got scratched to bits and very insect bitten but it is worth it.  My very wonderful Stihl chainsaw made it possible for me to tackle it easily.
The Knot Garden is loving the additional light that the lower hedge lets in.  I need to keep it better under control.  Part of the issue is that birds nest in it so I cannot trim it for several months of the year and it does grow very quickly.  I shall, however, try and do better.
It was a hot sunny morning when I took these photos and the garden was looking colourful.
I have managed to grow cosmos quite well this year. This patch is just by the bird feeder and it struggles some years, but the cosmos has filled it up with pink and white loveliness.
The Pond Border it looking very full.  You can just see the pink haze of the tall sanguisorba, this plant is amazing and I am so glad I planted it.  Bees and hoverflies also love it.
The Conservatory Border has also done well this year.  The yellow Blythe Spirit rose in the foreground has particularly flowered well.
The Courtyard is looking very green.  I have potted on some of the plants this summer and they seem happier for it.
The spikeys and pelagoniums also seem to be happy.  Whilst it looks a little shady in this photo, the sun comes around the corner and they bask for most of the day.
There is fruit in the garden, the Bramley tree is heavy with fruit as usual.  It always produces a big crop.
There is still my rather precious solitary quince,
and as ever the Medlar has fruited well this year.
The Prairie Borders are doing very well.  I do need to thin out the echinops a bit as they are taking over a little.  I have also planted some perennial sunflowers in the borders this year.  These are a bit of a thug so I am going to have to keep an eye on them, but they will be flowering soon and should add some new interest to this area.
The exotic borders look quite lush. This Musa ventricosum is about three years old now.  Every year i dig it up and keep it safe from frost. It is growing very well this year.
I rather like this view across the Dancing Lawn back towards the Exotic Border.  The sweep of the eating apple tree makes a nice frame.
The teasel patch has been good this year too.  I let the stem skeletons stand all winter as the finches love the seeds and also they add good structure.  This patch varies year on year, due to the biennial nature of the teasel I find I have a good year and then a slightly less good year.  The stems are as spikey as the flowers and care has to be taken when weeding near them.  I have scratched myself on them more times than I care to think about.
The Four Sisters are also doing well.  The Carol Klein acer was badly wind-burned last year, but has recovered well thankfully.
The Clethra is such a good shrub, it has good flowers and wonderful scent, I think it is rather under-rated which is rather a shame.
The Edgeworthia has put on a good ten inches of growth this year.  There are also flower buds forming on it already for next spring.  I shall watch it anxiously all winter as I always do, but it is getting to be very well established now.
The fernery has enjoyed the recent rain and is doing very well.  I am really pleased I decided to use this dark shady corner for ferns; little else seems to want to grow here except nettles.
The Hyde Hall rose hedge is in need of a prune, I shall tackle it with hedge trimmers when the main flowers are over.
I have not grown a lot of vegetables this year as most of the vegetable borders are turned over to wedding flowers for my daughter (have I mentioned this previously? I am not sure I have.....).  This border is mainly sweetcorn, french beans, a solitary slug-eaten cabbage and some dahlias.
Whereas this border is a delightful tangle of beans, courgettes and sweetcorn.  I thought I would try the Three Sisters approach and it has worked really well.  It looks good and the randomness of it pleases me hugely.  I cannot remember a year when I have actually enjoyed growing vegetables as much as I have done this time.
I am not going to show you the cut flowers in this post, I shall update on the wedding flowers soon  (have I mentioned this before......??)  These are the sweetpeas, they are starting to show their age a bit now, I hope I can keep them going for a few more weeks.
In the greenhouse there are seeds and cuttings,
and some tomatoes and chillies.  I am not a great grower of tomatoes, these plants were a gift.  I have kept them alive long enough to fruit which for me is quite an achievement.
I end as ever on the pond.  It is not as full of parrot weed as it has been in previous years.  It has also refilled a bit from all the recent rain.  It remains one of my favourite parts of the garden.

Thanks as ever to Helen for hosting this meme.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Book Review - Letters to a Beekeeper by Steve Benbow and Alys Fowler

I first heard of this book way back in 2013 when I saw on Twitter that it was in the process of being crowdfunded.  Alys Fowler and Steve Benbow were using the Unbound website to fund their project to bring this book into being.  I thought about it briefly and decided it was worth a contribution.  The project reached its target and contributors were informed that the book would now happen.

Time passes, in truth I will not mislead you, a lot of time passed and at times I wondered if the book would ever be.  Crowdfunding books is not a speedy process;  lesson learned! Apparently they have to write the book and get it published (quel surprise!).  I received an email every now and again telling me it was progressing and this kept me happy that one day the book would be mine.  Then the magic email arrived checking my details and saying delivery was imminent.  Well, that was more exciting than an exciting thing.
I also have to admit I was not really sure what the book would look like, well I have to tell you, it is a total delight.  Firstly, as ever, I wanted a proper book.  You can get a digital version and whilst I am by no means a Luddite, when it comes to books it appears I am.  I have written previously (repeatedly) that I like the feel and heft of a book.  This book is quite heavy and a rather pleasing square shape.  Books are not often square and whilst this might make it not shelve uniformly with other books (who wants uniformity?) it gives it character before you have opened it.
When you do open it you soon discover the contents are a mixture of charming letters between Alys and Steve.  Alys writing in different coloured inks and Steve writing and sketching on scraps of paper and backs of envelopes.
There is also lots of superb photographs many of which were taken by Steve.  As you would expect there is loads of information about bees and beekeeping.  It is written in a conversational and accessible style.  As the book progresses and you follow Aly's journey into beekeeping and to the development of a bee-friendly garden at Tate Britain.  This book, most of all, is a story of Steve and Alys's friendship and their letters to each other show a warmth and mutual respect.  They have the perfect balance of having their own area of expertise and a wish to share that knowledge.  I love this book, it's that kind of book that I realise whilst I am reading it I am learning and smiling - two of my favourite things.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Sparmannia Diaries

It feels like a large proportion of this year has been taken up with my discovery and love affair with Sparmannia africana.  Until February I am not aware of having seen one; then  I saw some at Thenford when I was there to see the snowdrops and once seen I was totally smitten.
I was determined to have some of these wonderful plants.  I bought some seeds and sowed them.  I moved them from hot to cold, cold to hot.  I gave up and ignored them in the greenhouse and then one germinated.
I was excited, I was pleased.  The slugs were pleased and devoured it overnight, this was irritating.

But I had a plan B as I had also found a plant to buy when I was at the West Woodhay Gardeners Fair.
A good strong healthy plant and I did what I always do with a new prized plant, I considered how to propagate from it and duly took some cuttings.  One cutting I potted up in the greenhouse and the other I popped into a glass of water to see what would happen.  A couple of weeks pass and the cutting in the greenhouse took.
I potted it on when it had some good roots and also took a couple more cuttings, well in for a penny.....

A couple of weeks more and I checked the cutting in the glass of water....
joy of joys, there were roots developing - result!  I potted it on and left it in the greenhouse to settle and develop further.
Am I happy with my wonderful Sparmannias?  Yes I am.

I have checked the two new cuttings in the greenhouse and....
... you guessed it, there are roots.  Few things are as magical as seeing the first roots indicating that a cutting has taken.  The patience required in waiting for this is almost too much for me but I restrain myself these days from giving the stems a little pull as that is a sure-fire way to failure.
and look, look, the large Sparmannia has flower buds forming.  Yes it is early for them them to forming, but I am over the moon with excitement.

Sparmannia africana will have to overwinter indoors as it is quite tender.  They also are very sensitive to having sufficient water, which was why I thought that it might root in water if it tried it.  I always love plants that root in a glass of water, I think it reminds me of my first attempts at propagating house plants when I was a child.

I now have gone from the start of the year with never having heard of a Sparmannia to having five, yes, five.  My Sparmannia cup overfloweth.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Irritating Plant of the Month: August, the premature Tiger Lily

Except of course it is not premature really, the tiger lily is doing what a tiger lily should do, getting ready to flower now.
So why is this irritating?  It is not really fair to label it so as in many ways this is a success.  I have tried to grow tiger lilies before and failed.  This time I bought quite a lot and planted some in the borders (no sign of them at all) and some in the Forest Deep Root Planter that I trialled earlier this year.  They clearly love the planter and have grown well.

I have wandered from the question, so I need to return to it.  The reason why this is irritating is that I need these flowers in October for my daughter's wedding.  They will form part of one of the bouquets and are a key element.  So I have turned to Twitter for advice and I will write again later when I will know if the advice has helped or not.  If I cannot keep a flower until the date required it will be irritating, but not exactly the worst thing ever. Que cera etc.....

Monday, 21 August 2017

Products review: Garden House Bird Feeder & Belightful Butterfly Feeder

I have been sent a couple of products to trial recently and as they are both about attracting beneficial wildlife/insects into the garden I thought they would work well being featured together.

Firstly there is the hanging Terracotta Bird Feeder from The Garden House.  This is an impressive bird feeder.  It is very solidly made and it has some heft.  It has a strong linked chain to hang it up with and you will indeed need something quite sturdy to hang it from.
I love terracotta, it weathers so beautifully, so I think that this bird feeder is a delight.  The birds seem to like it too as it keeps the seeds dry from the rain.  This retails currently for £24.95 and I think that is a really good price because of the quality of the product.  This is a definite good birthday or other festival day that might begin with C that is too early in the year to mention yet.

The other product I have been trialling is this butterfly feeder from Belightful who are a Finnish company that is owned by Miia Liesegang and Taina Tallala.  It says on their website that Miia and Taina believe that new products should be "should be delightful, meaningful and environmentally ethical " 
The butterfly feeder is made from recyclable materials.  It consists of a plastic outershell and a nectar-soaked foam ball.  You can buy refills for the nectar required.

I did not have the butterfly feeder set up for long before it attracted this Red Admiral butterfly.  It will not attract all butterflies, but this one seemed to enjoy it.
It is also quite attractive to other types of bugs and flies, which is good in my opinion.  We need to attract insects to our gardens as most have their role to play (if it attracted greenfly I would not be so happy!)  I should also say that since putting the butterfly out into the garden we have had several boughts of very heavy rain, but it is still attracting insects.  I did worry that the rain might wash the nectar away but it appears not to have done.

This product is not cheap, but it is well made and seems quite robust.  It costs around 60 euros directly from the Belightful website.  It comes in three different colours and is made in Finland.  It shops to EU countries, USA, Australia and Japan.  As above, I think that this is a product that would be an excellent present for a birthday or festival beginning with C. 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Austin: the epoch ends

Earlier this week I had to say goodbye to Austin, who was the eldest of my four cats.  Austin, named after Austin Powers by my children, has always been a challenging cat.  Nothing has been ordinary about the eighteen years of her life.
Austin was dumped in a plastic bag with her brother Lawrence in a local Safeway car park.  I had been thinking of getting another kitten at that time so when I heard about the dumped litter I went along to the local cattery to choose a kitten.  One kitten, singular.  My children came with me and we quickly chose Lawrence as we wanted a black cat.  This would have left a splodgy kitten on its own, so home with us she came, the wonderful Austin.  We were told they were both male, subsequently we discovered that Austin was in fact a she, but we never changed her name as it suited her so.  For years we always referred to them as 'the kittens' until it became apparent that they had really grown beyond that point.

So the children grew up with Austin, Lawrence and the indomitable Geoffrey.  Austin loved Geoffrey even though he treated her rather meanly.  When I moved to Leicester she had a brief crush on a cat that moved in with us at that time called Matt.  This was short-lived as he cared not a jot for her, so she decided to scorn him and returned to her first love, Geoffrey.
Austin hated moving to Leicester, she hated the house we first lived in when we arrived here and refused to come into the house.  Even when she did come into the house she hid extremely well so that the only sign I knew she was in the house was that food kept going and the cat litter was being used.  Austin was always a good hider.  Austin was always a very good judge of character, a really good judge.  Part of why she hated the move the Leicester so much was the reason why we moved.  Once that reason was no more she settled better but still thought I was a bad person for not listening to her in the first place.

When I moved to this current house Austin was a little happier.  When my son moved here she was over the moon.  Austin loved my son very much, nearly as much as she hated me for moving her to Leicester.  After a couple of years when my son moved out she decided she had to put up with me as I was the best she had left.  Austin never practised flattery and had in practice sulked for nearly seven of her then fourteen years of life.  I am not sure if she could remember why she was so cross with me, but this is a cat that could hold a grudge.
Time moved on and a few years ago Geoffrey died.  I worried hugely that Austin would not cope but after a brief period of unsettlement she seemed fine.  A couple of years later though and Lawrence died and Austin plunged into despair.  I have never seen a cat grieve before.  She used to cry in the middle the of  the night, it was heartbreaking.  She never really recovered.  She got more and more fragile, dementia set in and her kidneys and thyroid started to stop functioning well.  The more unwell she became the more she began to rely on me and want to be near me.  She became pretty much a house cat, rarely setting paw outdoors and stayed almost always on the sofa.

Things did not improve, earlier this year I went away for a few days and when I returned she had forgotten me completely.  She was actually terrified when she saw me, it was incredibly upsetting.  Then last week after years of not really going outside at all, she started going outside.  This really worried me, it was such a change in behaviour, I thought that this was a bad sign and indeed it was.  What has surprised me most was how badly Bruce, Esme and Flossy have taken her loss.  I thought they would hardly notice as they never really bothered with her at all.  Austin held court in the lounge and she did not really allow the others in there.  They have been upset all week and clearly miss her hugely as do I, the sofa is suddenly too big without her.
So farewell Austin, the last of the cats that my children grew up with, the last of my cats that connect me back to the city of my birth.  It is indeed the end of an era, the Austinian epoch is over.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Pelagoniums, ivies and ferns: it must be Fibrex Nurseries

Recently the All Horts group arranged a day out at Fibrex Nurseries.  This nursery has been on my 'must visit' list for some time and so it felt like destiny was giving me a push in the right direction.  The right direction turns about to be relatively close to Stratford upon Avon and around one hour from home.  It was then further planned that we would move on to Hidcote which is around 10 minutes away.  This sounded like a fine day out to me so I agreed to go.
Fibrex is family run business and  home to the National Collection of Pelagoniums and the National Collection of Hedera.  They also sell a wide range of ferns, begonias, perennial geraniums and some amazing hibiscous and conservatory plants.
Heather was our guide for the day and we started off being talked through fern propagation.  Sadly fern spores are now well understood and the Victorian belief that fern flowers and seeds were invisible is now known to be unfounded.  This is sort of a shame as it was believed that if you ate the invisible seeds they would make you invisible, hence the amount of fairies living in ferny dells.  I decided not to tell the fairies that spores are a known thing, one wouldn't wish to disappoint them or make them vacate the bottom of the garden.
The fern spore collection process is just getting started.
We moved on to where the pelagonium cuttings were being rooted.  They take up to 1000 cuttings a day in the cuttings season.  We were told that it was best to take the cutting in the morning, let it dry for a couple of hours and then pot it up.  My success with pelagonium cuttings is variable so I shall give this a go.
We spent a lot of time admiring the pelagoniums.  This is a zonartic pelagonium which is a new kind of pelagonium and the product of decades of cross-breeding.  They come in a range of yellows and creams and pinks.  These will be available to order soon.
There are so many different types of pelagonium, there are more than one national collection but Fibrex is the only nursery to have the national collection of all of them.  We were told it is the largest collection in the world, impressive or what!
I could have spent several hours just looking at them, admiring them and coveting them.  One of the most important pieces of information Heather shared with us is that pelagoniums should be kept at above 7 deg.  If you keep them above this temperature then they should get through the winter.  I bring mine into the conservatory to over winter them and in future I will make sure I definitely do this.
We moved on to look at the hedera (ivies).  We walked around the poly tunnel and I found myself uttering words I never expected to: 'ooh look at the amazing ivy'.  If, like me, you have rampant dark grim ivy wandering around your garden, it is rather good to be reminded that ivy, like all plants, has its beauty and some of the varieties were truly stunning.
Then it was into the begonia tunnel.  These big blousy blooms are just incredible.  I have many begonias but not any like this.......... yet............
Then it was hello to the ferns.  So many ferns, so many beautiful ferns.  There was a time when I thought ferns were dull and just sat there being green.  Now I look at the different shapes and forms, I admire their shades of green and the emergence of their fronds, I am a fern convert.
Mmmmm ferns.
and of course a box of delights came home with me.  Four pelagoniums, one ivy and one fern = happy happy.

In the afternoon we wandered on to Hidcote where we were given a tour by All Horts member and gardener at Hidcote, Tom.  Tom proudly showed us around the gardens and talked us through some of the many changes that are happening to restore the gardens to be more like they were when Major Johnston created it.  I last visited Hidcote last November, after a gap of several years.  It was good to see it in the growing season.
We had a really good wander,
there is much to see and love at this garden,
we spent a lot of time in the hot house in the kitchen garden.  I am still in spikey/succulent mode at the moment.
We had the most wonderful afternoon.

A massive thank you to Heather and Tom for looking after us and giving us so much of their time.  Thank you also to All Horts for another wonderful day out with such good company.
Just to round this off, whilst I am talking about being still in spikey mode - this is pelagonium Little Spikey, how could I leave such an adorable pelagonium behind at the nursery?  I am pretty sure that this pelagonium is the equivalent of L'il Sebastian.