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A gardeners musings – Layers of Plants – February 14


Like most of us I haven’t been able to get out lately, let alone onto the garden, but what I have been doing is thinking about extending the layers of planting in the one garden I have been able to do some work in. Wet days in winter are a good opportunity to look around the garden and with little to obscure the view dream in some more planting to complement the bare twigs of winter, in summer your observations may lead you to decide on a climber to complement a shrub or hide a bare wall. Even if it’s not the right time to do it, plan it! A note in the diary – I list some of mine below.
Making the most of the different layers of planting in a garden is a good way of getting as much as you can into a limited space , for introducing plants that succeed one another or live happily in the same space at groung level, as well as high up among all your exisiting plants. Making use of all these layers also helps to make you garden interesting all year round and gives it a feeling of permenance and history , a satisfying feeling that it has been there for a very long time- I think this is because nature works this way without our help- think of the snow drops coming up in the wood, and the Old Mans Beard swathing the trees at the woodland edge – we can use cultivars with better features and that are more suited to a garden scale.
Bulbs , climbers, large shrubs and small trees are the simplest way of achieving this layered effect- most of us use the middle space already filled with beloved shrubs and perennials.
Choosing well and choosing a sensible place for them helps make a success of all this – so that plants in the same space don’t get disturbed when you forget about them and cultivate – an excellent example of this from Christopher Lloyd ( Great Dixter Garden) is to plant winter aconite in close proximity to hostas- the aconite will come up and flower long before the hostas- then when the hostas are up the leaves will protect the dormant aconite from your trowel as there would be no need to weed or cultivate under the leaves of the hostas.
At The Courts, a National Trust garden in Holt some of the mixed boders are completely covered in Crocus tommasinianus at this time of year – by the time the perennials and shrubs are leafing the foliage of the crocus is dying away- mulching the ground beautifully – by the time the border is in flower you would never know the crocus were there at all- for small flwered bulbs mass planting is the most successful.
Now-Buy Eranthis hyemalis ( winter aconite) to plant under the big horse chestnut tree, and under the hostas! - buy now – this is best (green) or August (soak bulbs over night)
Now-Buy snowdrops to plant under the Cornus amongst the grond cover ivy buy now’ in the green’ or beg some from a friend
Now -Buy clematis ( texensis group) to plant under the Cotinus coggygria’Palace Purple’ – it will climb throught the branches poking its flowers through to the sun and texensis are small and won’t swamp the shrub – I will choose a colour to contrast with the purple of the Cotinus- probably the new one Clematis ‘Princess Kate’ ( very apt to put with ‘Palace purple I think!) . The texensis group of clematis are very useful for pairing with small shrubs- particularly early flowering shrubs- the texensis will flower late when the shrub has finished in effect giving you another flush of flower.
Now or next winter:Buy species rose Rosa moyesii to plant behind shrubs to give height to a corner space – height in corner is a good thing
April – buy Vitis coignettiae to cover the shed in summer
April – buy Thymus serpyllum to plant between the paving stones
March- order Lilium martagon ‘Claude Shride’
August – order Colchicum bulbs to plant in amongst the Vinca minor – these will flower in September and disappear again till the leaves come up in spring
So – put it in the diary- plant it where you dreamed it and watch. The more you see this work the more you will want to do it. Spring really is on it’s way. Christopher Lloyd says in his book “Cuttings” that ‘every gardeners New Year starts with a euphoric gush of hope’ he’s not wrong.

Tip- try not to walk on wet soil ! If you must then put down a plank and walk it -it will spread your weight and help avoid compacting the soil –it will also stop you getting very muddy feet.


August – keeping it all going

Every time we have a hot dry spell am reminded how fast plants flower and give up displaying just for us, the job of making seeds having been accomplished in double quick time,the seed cases browning and ready to disperse their bounty. I am not a particularly neurotic person but the thought of ‘Oh my- how I am going to keep it going’ always arrives around mid July ( oh, apart form last year when summer came in April)and I don’t imagine that I am alone in this. Some of these things help:
Dead heading and chopping: Dead heading becomes very important- we need to trick the plant into believing it still has a lot of work to do producing flowers to makes seed- most plants will only do this if they are not allowed to set seed in the first place so rigorous pinching off of spent flower heads will achieve this. Some perennials like most of the hardy geraniums can be dead headed by simply cutting the whole plant down to the ground- it will grow back a nice neat mound of leaves and will often give you a second flush of flower, this can be done with Alchemilla mollis and Nepeta too.
alchmilnocutback If you have repeat flowering roses dead heading every day will get the best out of them- cut down to the next leaf joint so that you don’t end up with a plant that looks a though it has been deadheaded by a deer. Chopping, or the Chelsea chop( done in June) as it is known, is a way of both reducing the size of a plant making it more sturdy and less likely to flop- Sedum spectabile can be stopped from flopping in this way)- and a way of making it flower later.Not all plants respond to this so be careful- it must be a perennial that will grow side shoots such as Golden Rod or Helenium sp – you will get smaller flowers but many more of them and by cutting down only half the clump you will extend the flowering season instead of delaying it.
Leaves : Apart from the highly bred cultivars particularly in bedding plants and bulbs most plants are more leaf than flower,and their leaves are present for a lot longer than flowers so choosing plants with interesting leaves helps maintain interest and bulk. Coloured foliage like purple, bronze, silver as well as the many many different greens can make a fabulous display with an accent of flower mixed in. Interesting shaped foliage like Carex, all the grasses,Cynara,Iris, Acanthus all mixed with the more usual leaf shapes help to provide contrast and texture both of which engage our interest.
Annuals ( bedding):Planting hardy annuals in situ amongst the perennials, or transplanting half hardy and tender plants into gaps is very important as a way of keeping the garden looking bright well into late summer- the ubiquitous Cosmos bipinnatus will flower until October and beyond if you dead head it, as will Antirrhinum majus , Petunia, Pelargonium and many of the plants we use as bedding or infill.
Succession planting: Planting for a succession of colour so that your garden looks fabulous at all times of year is an ideal that most of a chase- it is not easy and is the skill by which many of us judge our gardening prowess- it takes an enormous amount of plant knowledge to select companions that will gracefully give way to one another and die back beautifully in an orchestrated wave of pure magic – my how I would love to achieve this- someone who has written of his work to this end is Christopher Lloyd( now dead) of Great Dixter garden in East Sussex. Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners BBC Books tells of how he and his head gardener Fergus Garrett managed this year after year, as well as photos there is lots of practical stuff too- they share their knowledge with us- having a go is the only way to get there but using all the layers you have is a good start- bulbs, ground cover, perennials, shrubs, climbers and maybe a small tree.
Mulch, organic matter and water :You may remember that I spoke of mulching in a previous article- well I can’t stress enough how it will help your plants to survive our hot spells with minimal need for watering, adding organic matter to the earth in autumn or spring, and mulching the soils surface then too will really help as it holds onto the water that is present and stores it for roots to find- If you do have to water then water the base of the plant lots – watering overhead wastes a vast amount of water as only a small proportion of it gets to where it is needed- at the roots of the plant. Water planting holes , watering and mulch newly planted things- this means that all the water you have applied will be under the ground- in the root zone and not being evaporated from the soils surface.

The weather: I have stood next to a planting recently thinking ‘maybe I should change it all for Mediterranean
plants that love the heat and the dry’ and have had to remind myself that in the last couple of years this summer heat has been the exception – that if we do have a prolonged spell of hot weather nature will take its course, I will be dead heading like crazy and watering more than I would like to, that I must get more organic matter into the soil next spring, and that this weather is so much needed, not by the garden plants maybe, but by us – definitely.

Written in mid July-
I wonder what the weather is doing now.


Topiary Hedges

In late July rather later than I might have preferred I trimmed our topiary hornbeam hedge. The long new season growths had increased the size of the hedge by about 2 feet. I like my hedge to have a formal shape although one of the glories of the Hornbeam is that it becomes very informal during the growing season.
However I leave a Mohican of long growth on the top or the hedge to give extra privacy and informality, I find trimming a shoulder accentuates the longer growth. Along the hedge are shapes on stems. Inside in our garden is an arch linking with a Yew hedge and an arbour projecting out both formed the hornbeam hedge. The front picture is looking into an arch from the road.

The picture below is the neatly trimmed hedge on our shared drive, which give our neighbours a stimulating view as they pass it !

topiary hedge1


Flowering Roses

Kate has been busy developing her skills with roses for a few years now which has given our garden a good show of them, I took these photo’s of one group in our garden from buds to full flower.

They start with pictures in June with Hesperis which is an excellent combination to my mind, then the Roses as part of the garden then pictures during July when they have come into full bloom.


Roses in June

It has only just become possible to imagine that we will have roses and stuff this year what with the weather and all (I am writing this 26th april and again we have a north east wind and a frost forecast for tonight). It seems unlikely but when you are reading this your roses should at least be in bud and the month ahead should be full of their colour and scent .

It remains to be see how our winter will effect  roses this year : At the moment those against sheltered walls or in a sheltered corner are doing OK if a bit reluctant, those on north and east walls and those in exposed places are looking pretty battered. Not only has some of the new growth been knocked off by the wind but  the new growth has also been dessicated and if a rose is not planted deep it is likely to rock in the wind damaging roots. A drying wind rips the moisture from the new soft growth and  from the surface of the soil, some shoots will have been killed by this and a secondary prune may be necessary.

Roses can be very robust plants and planting and watering them deep, then applying a good thick mulch will certainly help them establish well and stand up to what the weather can chuck at them in subsequent winters.

The best and cheapest way to buy roses is as bare rooted plants in winter when they look  no more than a collection of sticks, however this isn’t the way most of us do it:

We are totally seduced by the sight of a healthy rose in leaf, bud and flower at the garden centre- it is usualy the flowers that do it and they have done since Flora transformed a dead nymph into one, Cleopatra strewed her bedroom with petals and Marie Antoinette just couldn’t get enough of them; in her garden at Chateau de Malmaison  she collected hundreds of roses  and without knowing it  left us the legacy of the modern rose- a hybrid  of the tough and scented European roses and the repeat flowering roses newly arriving from China and asia that she was privileged to obtain.

The rose has been associated with women from the year dot  too , from the innoscent ( white) the  english rose( pink and soft) to the femme fatale ( redly perfectly seductive) and all in between.

Roses are such queens of flowers and their scent so alluring that they do deserve abit of thought before they have you entirely in their spell  and you end up with a monster rose for a small garden  or worse – just nowhere to plant it-  because it was irrestistible and had to have it ( It happens to even the most sensible of us).

It is not my intention to get  too horticultural about roses  – instead indulge in the thrill of choosing them and finding a place for them in the garden – with just a little preparation.

So,where are you going to plant it? Measure the space, check you have wires on the wall- put a cane in the border and cut it off at the height you want your rose to reach, visualise your rose ,take a glass of something drinkable into the garden and sit and observe- is the planting place shaded, is it sheltered or wind blown, is it height you need in that spot or something low and spreading,observe roses in other peoples gardens – knock on doors and ask what the rose is if you like it – be brazen( most people remember the name of a rose they have chosen). If you are going to cloth a new obelisk or fence with a rose take some string and tie it to the bottom- spiral it round the obelisk, train it  up and horizontally along the fence to where you want it, then undo it and measure the string – you may be surprised how much ‘height’ you need from a climber to train it this way.

What do want it to do? Scramble up a tree, climb a wall, make a good single specimen, cover the ground,sit beautifully in your border with other plants, smell, flower repeatedly, or give you one to be waited for marvelous burst of colour, give you a show of hips in autumn, blend with an existing colour scheme or stand out like a beacon?

Prioritise- you will probably get a few of your must haves from one well choosen rose. Take your specifications to the garden centre with you, staff will always help make a suitable selection if you find yourself being distracted, once there, by the sweetie shop laid out before you.

On the other hand- you could just throw the home work on the fire and be damned – go for it .


Tip. Plant roses deep in a large hole back filled with well broken up soil mixed with garden compost or well rotted manure- fim in gently with your foot when the hole is half filled and again when it is full, water deeply and mulch – water deeply once a week this season to get it established. More water less frequently is far better than a little water often.


‘’It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important’’

Antoine de Saint- Expupery ( The Little Prince 1943)

 Kate Hickmott


Tales of a country gardener

I know it’s quite an old fashioned title but gardening and garden design is an art with a very long pedigree with deep and enduring traditions, with practices that have evolved form those used hundreds of years ago.

A tree for example, may be planted with the next century in mind. A saying is “plant an apple tree for your children, plant a pear tree for your grandchildren”, a saying in itself that may be from the nineteenth century.

So we make no apology for bringing traditional values, images and language into this most modern of media.

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