Neglecting my own garden but enjoying other people’s

Non-stop travelling for the last month, preceded by tedious and back breaking weekends of shifting buckets of soil from the top of the hill to the bottom, has left the garden thoroughly neglected.

Is it bothered?  Barely!  With the exception of a major grass cutting operation, it is chugging along regardless and I’m feeling just a little unnecessary.

sweet peasThe rudbekias and dahlias are looking lovely, the pelargoniums are still going strong and pentemons are still flowering.  Colchimums, nerines, verbana bonaries and the autumn primulas are coming to life.  Late lillies and tame crocosmia are still in bloom, a deep purple clematis is looking striking in a cherry tree and the late sowing of godetia (after slugs ate the first seedlings) are pink, frilly and very cheerful.

Blueberries are ready for eating straight from the bush and a fine apple crop is shaping up both front and back. Surprisingly, given the gales we had in Scotland while I was in the US, the sweet peas at the front are still in full bloom, despite me not being around to deadhead them.

Some serious weeding and tidying is required, along with some deadheading and pot revitalisation, but I must admit I was expecting to return to a lot worse.

A garden a world away from my own

berkley botanic gardenAlthough away on a business trip, I had the pleasure of making a visit to the Botanic Garden at the University of Berkley, California.  Right up in Strawberry Canyon, on the Hayward Fault in the hills above San Francisco Bay, the garden is both hot and sunny (seasonally arrid) and yet still gets plenty of rain in autumn and winter.  It is not dissimilar to Mediterranean climates like Cyprus.

I was expecting American, arrid, Mediterranean and desert planting – but the garden was so much more than that.  A lovely old rose garden (heavenly musky smell), a fabulous little garden of foodstuffs of the world (where I saw my first caper plant!) and a lovely herb garden.

The edible garden was quite incredible – the climate had made all the fruit and vegetable goes mad – there was a purple sprout stalk taller than me and the most amazing purple beans.  Even some plants (like the caper) that I had simply never seen before, or didn’t know were edible.

It is rightly described as one of the United States best plant collections, but it was also a stunning series of gardens.  The gardens are displayed in a series of geographies, with California naturally a major part.

There were particularly interesting Japanese and Chinese gardens, also an impressive Australian garden.  Though I’m not usually into grasses, there was a beautiful drift of South American plain style planting which caught my eye – golden knee high stalks, mixed in with cotton grasses.  Not a look I’d ever want to replicate, but beautiful in this context.  Even the cacti, which usually leave me cold, were stylishly planted and very impressive.

fabulous flower combinations

Now if I could just replicate this combination!

Some lovely flowering plant combinations meant I took loads of pictures in the vague hope I will remember them and replicate them – nowhere was this more true than in the Japanese & rose garden.

I enjoyed it more than the famous Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco and the gardens at Stanford that I’ve visited in previous years.

If you’re ever in the Bay area, I highly recommend at trip over to Berkley’s Botanic Gardens – and if you’re feeling fit and the weather is not too hot, the walk up Strawberry Canyon from Berkley campus is also a lovely one.  The smell of eucalyptus, rosemary and various pines and cyprus will transport you to another world!

structural destruction for the garden

wall crack

The scariest looking of several cracks in the retaining wall

For nearly 9 years now, we have lived with a crack down the middle of the big retaining wall that keeps the patio from falling down the garden.  Possibly squashing me in the process.

It was on the survey of the house.  I always knew one day I’d have to fix it.  And dammit, it looks like that day is now.

Recent hard winters and monsoon like summer rains have opened up more cracks at the side of the wall.  In recent weeks I have woken up after yet another rain storm expecting to find the top of the garden has slipped to the bottom.

The house itself is not at risk, but still, I’d rather not have a landslide in the garden.

Lots of money is going to have to be spent and lots of destruction is going to be wrecked upon the upper part of the garden, just to get it looking pretty much like it did before.  Minus the scary cracks.

I am usually the most Pollyanna of optimists, but spending money to destroy part of the garden at the very time it is supposed to be looking lovely is more than a little depressing.

But, I am trying to look on the bright side.  I shall get some rubble that I can use to make a level base for a seat at the bottom of the hill.  (The old wonky seat collapsed a few weeks back, as we sat wine in hand.  And we didn’t even spill a drop.)

I shall be able to shift some top soil around and do a bit of levelling out.  I have already emptied a compost bin and spread nice rich leaf mould around.  I’ll have stones that I can use on the stairs I need to build.  I’m even hoping I will have enough rock and waste soil to make a small pond.

Loads of herb cuttings have been taken and plants moved into pots. I will shift the Apple and big Rosemary bush at the last minute and cross my fingers.

A weekend of digging has left things looking pretty bare, but if it stops raining at some point, I will finish up by lifting the top foot of so of soil and transferring it into a builder’s bag for use later.  Then I’ll move onto the border a little lower down.

All the herbs lifted, compost bin removed and rotted leaf mould salvaged

Funny how gardening goes.  I know that it won’t really take that long for it to recover, that it is an opportunity for new planting and it is a good thing to no longer risk being squished by a falling wall. But I wish I wasn’t about to see everything trashed!

At least the front garden is looking lovely.  So if I put maybe if I put my hands over my ears and just keep looking in that direction…

Nemesia carnival mix seeds have been priceless

Much of my summer planting may be still struggling into bloom due to the foul Scottish weather, but not Nemesia Carnival Mix. A single £1.49 packet of seeds from Suttons is responsible for about 70% of the flowering joy in my pots at the moment. In bold oranges, reds, yellows and pinks, every pot that contains, or is near these fabulous little plants looks better for it.  It puts a smile on my face whenever I see it.

nemesia carnival mixI am not on commission here, but for once, everything that the website said about this plant is true:

  • Yes – the plants flower quickly and brightly coloured – think dazzling oranges not wishywashy greyish pinks.
  • Yes – they are compact plants bearing large flowers, much more so than the Nemesia Paintbox Mix I have used in the past.  Compared to the Carnival Mix, the Paintbox plants seem quite straggly and weedy (though until discovering this variety, they have been my previous first choice of Nemesia.)
  • YES – they are weather tolerant.Even Scottish Highlands weather tolerant.  Even gales and four times the monthly rainfall in 2 hours tolerant.  Even low night-time temperature tolerant that has made the pelargoniums sniffy, which is a lot to ask from a half hardy annual.

They have been flowering for several weeks now and are due to go on until September (longer maybe if the weather holds, as I did  second, later sowing).  The plants in flower now were sown 20th February. I started them off in the propagator, then potted them into a bigger tray and moved them outside relatively early (after first hardening them off on the window sills).  They made good growth in April before being sat back, like everything else, by the miserable May.

I’m sure in warmer places they would have been flowering for months now, but given that my fuschia, lillies, phlox, godetia and lots more have still to break a bloom, I’m very happy with all their efforts so far.  Their rewards have been far in excess of the effort it took to grow them and both germination rates and survival rates have been very good.

I have only had one mature plant from the entire sowing go poorly on me and that is because I first baked it, then drowned it.  After giving it drying out time in the greenhouse tent, it is bouncing back with new flowers and the foliage has perked up.

According to Sutton Seeds’s website, I can make an August/September sowing for early flowers next year.  It will involve the plants moving indoors with me, but it will definitely be worth a try.  I assume I leave them to flower indoors, because I can’t imagine they will cope with the February/March temperatures here.

So, based on alround versatility, flower quality, ease of growing, size and bushiness and general loveliness – Nemesia Carnival Mix is my flower of the year so far.  And I still have some of that £1.49 packet of seeds left!  These other images, taken today, show its full versatility, I hope:

Rain stops play in Inverness

Much anticipated, my day in the garden – like the Scottish Open Golf Championship here in Inverness today – simply didn’t get to be.  Crashes of thunder, flashes of lightning and absolute torrents of rain thwarted even my bravest attempts to make the most of my first day in the garden for weeks.  10 cm of rain fell overnight, there was hours of violent storms during the night that overturned trees in the area and caused a landslide at the golf course, and apart from the odd respite, today wasn’t much better.

Clad in my shorts and mac (I’d always rather have just wet legs, than wet legs and wet trousers) I managed to duck out between the worst of the deluges to try some sacrificial pruning on some of the flowers hammered in the exceptionally heavy storms during the night.

foxgloves in rain

Foxgloves at strange angles due to the storms

The tall white and pink foxgloves were particularly badly hit and I pruned many of them down to a pair of leaves in the hope of getting a second flush of flowers.  The leaves of the potatoes also got the chop – they have been wind damaged and are beyond saving, so I have cut back the foliage and will just have to hope the spuds are salvageable.

Earlier this week I arrived home from a work trip to find my pots about 24 hours away from a serious drying out crisis – yet today I was putting what I could under cover in the plastic greenhouses to try and stop them getting any wetter!  The lovely red pelargoniums which are in full flower would definitely prefer being on the dry side, to virtually drowned as they are just now – if this doesn’t stop soon I’ll have to bring them indoors.  Some of the pots of mixed flowers are definitely looking sorry for themselves (and they’re not alone!)

I began to cut back some of the hedge – a miserable task well suited to the conditions – before noticing my outstretched shears were making me look a lot like a strangely dressed lightening conductor.  Not wanting to sizzle as well as squelch,  I eventually gave up and retreated indoors.  It may be July, but getting the fire alight is the only appropriate response to this meteorological menace.

Gardening against the elements, instead of with them, is no fun at all and I think if this was my first year as a gardener I’d have admitted defeat by now.    Still, the slugs and snails are happy and this morning I counted 24 bedraggled sparrows in a row on the hedge.  I’m sure its all going to look very pretty – if only it ever stops raining….

Transformation in progress

The front garden is starting to show results from the tool breaking efforts of earlier this year.

evolving front gardenIt is hard to believe just a three months ago I was battling crocosmia and pulling up the last of the heather, which had smothered everything. The windswept front garden was pretty dull and really not a priority until I moved my desk and found myself looking at it all day, every day.

Staring at an uninspiring patch all day was clearly the gardening motivation I required.  And now the garden is emerging as a pretty, small cottage garden with its own personality.

Orange and red lillies are emerging, contrasting with purple lavender, alliums, blue iris, yellow geum and yellow poppies.  Green and yellow foliage, Alchemilla Mollis and the black elder are making a beautiful back drop.

I must admit that the overall effect is better than I could have hoped for, but is perhaps largely accidental.  With the heather out, I didn’t really know what would come through and I while I had a mental plan for the new planting I put in, I had no idea what would come through from self-seedlings or previous year’s bulbs and plants.

Seeing it come together has helped me get a sense of where to go next with the garden. A little more dark foliage (I’ve put a few dahlia tubers  in);  some more bright yellows/oranges (perhaps I’ll move an Azalea from a pot into the ground).  A bold smattering of blue, purple and red will also work.  But the green is really holding it together, so I don’t want to lose that.  As a whole, the garden is more herbaceous than before, so it will not look so good in winter, but maybe I can use winter bedding to fix that.

This weekend I shall be sure to take more cuttings from the Sambucus nigraBlack Lace‘ and distribute them to friends and neighbours.  Right now the plant is looking so impressive, it is stopping passers by in the street.  Yesterday two tourists stopped and took a photo of it and today a lady couldn’t resist touching and smelling it.  I have got one strong cutting from last year and a few softwood cuttings going from this year, but think there is local demand for more!

The picture below is a little taste of what is in full bloom at the moment – and no heather to be seen!

Mid June blooms in the previously neglected front garden

Gardening Scotland Heaven

What a finish to three weeks of near-non stop travelling – a sunbaked visit to Gardening Scotland for some much needed plant therapy.

It really was a fabulous show. I’ve only been to Chelsea once, but I really do prefer Gardening Scotland.  It has a terrific floral hall, lots of the exhibitors go to Chelsea too, but its scale and focus is more human and far more relevant to us mere mortals.  Plus it is covered by the best gardening programme on TV – Beechgrove Garden.  I attended a couple of really useful Q&A sessions in the Beechgrove Theatre tent, got to ask a question, and was reminded how knowledgable, down to earth and entertaining the Beechgrove bridage and experts from Edinburgh and St Andrews Botanic Garden are.

It was a baking hot day (when I returned to my car at 4pm, the temperature in Edinburgh was 28 degrees) and so the floral hall was not only a feast of flowers, but extremely heady with scent too.  I wanted to channel my inner bee and curl up among the lillies.

gardening scotland floral hall

Impressive floral hall displays

Naturally there was a retail component to the visit, but I was pretty restrained and only spent the cash I had set aside.  I even tried to set myself a wishlist in advance so as not to get tempted by pretty flowery things I don’t need.

The plant I was most hoping to buy was a new white anenome.

Beautiful Anemone Wild Swan

And by being super sharp through the gate when it opened at 10am, by 10.15am I was the proud owner of Anemone Wild Swan – the Chelsea Flower Show plant on the year. They soon sold out, so I was glad I was quick of the mark.

I was really hoping to get this particular plant as the anemones I planted from corms have done so well this year and I wanted to try a new variety.  This one is beautifully white at the front, but with blue tints at the back.

At the gardening Q&A session I asked a question about growing anemones from seed (mine have great big seed heads just now and I have been very tempted to experiment with sowing them in trays).  Apparently it is perfectly doable, but the plants take about three years to flower.  When grown from seeds these plants can have all sorts of random variations, which is how something like Wild Swan comes about.  That sounds like scope for fun!

So I shall definitely be experimenting with propogating anemones this year, just in case I manage to produce a show winner like Anemone Wild Swan.

Godetia all gobbled by mystery monster

Some vile pest has systematically sought out every single one of my Godetia seedlings and bitten their heads off.  Every last one!

And this was not just a case of a single seed tray being flattened – I potted them all up  last Sunday.  The despicable creature in question picked its way through maybe 60 -70 pots of various young plants, zoned in on the Godetia and ate the tops of every single one.  A few other things got nibbled, with assorted losses here and there – but I have never seen such targeting of a specific plant.

It’s really maddening as I love Godetia.  This hardy annual always provides welcome colour in pots and because last year’s show was so nice, I bought two different types this year – dwarf and azalea flowered.  They germinated and grew really well.  And – sob – now they’re all gone.

Last year's Godetia put on a show for months

They were planted in trays outside back in March and April and this was their last potting up before going into their final places.  I spent ages on Sunday planting them up – and in the rain, too.  Damn, I’m hopping mad!

In theory it is probably too late to plant more, but I shall try anyway as I still have some seed left.  I have put some seed straight into the ground, some into pots with the remnants of the eaten plants and some into seed trays.

What pest could have done this dastardly deed?  I have four suspects:

1) Baby rabbit.  This deceptively cute monster was spotted Monday morning on the patio/plant nursery.  I chased it away with my best angry dog impression, which scared it for all of 5 minutes before it was back hopping around like it owned the place.  But, it didn’t show much interest in the seedlings, going instead for a patch of weed grass near the back door.  And, I doubt it could have picked its way specifically through the various pots without knocking some over.  I think the culprit was smaller.

2) Wood mouse.  I’ve seen several of these hopping from pot to pot in the last few weeks, plus they are certainly small enough to get away with savaging the pots, without knocking them over.  But – do mice even eat Godetia seedlings?  And would they really prefer them over the beans and peas that were in the adjoining pots?  I doubt it, though I don’t know for sure.

3) Slugs. There are loads of slugs at the moment – I keep finding them under pots and trays and the big ones make me squeal like a baby.  I currently have 3 beer traps out (filled with the dregs from Stephen’s homebrew) and the slugs have been happily drowning themselves in the beer.  They definitely could have done this, but there is no tell tale slime.

4) Snails.  I have only seen one snail around and this soon became bird food, but I know they come out at night, so I may simply have missed them.  Again, there is no slime train, but having read up on their habits (know your enemy and all that) I think they may be my prime suspect.

This very useful pest fact sheet about slugs and snails from the University of Guelph (where I have visited on a couple of occasions for work) makes me realise I have to do some fast acting control.  To quote:

Sanitation can be highly beneficial in controlling populations of slugs and snails. It involves the removal of all materials that could provide daytime hiding places and ideal egg laying sites, such as plant debris, dense plant growth, rocks, boards, and logs. This is especially important in shaded areas near trees and buildings. The use of mulches should be avoided in any of these sites. Tall or densely growing plants may need to be thinned to allow for more air movement and light penetration and therefore, drier environmental conditions.

I think the damp weather, combined with the fact I moved the seedlings to a shady spot near the house so they didn’t bake in the sun created the perfect conditions for a slug and snail “all you can eat” buffet.   Now I’m fretting about what else they might have taken out by morning.  But, the University of Guelph fact sheet gives the following advice:

Slugs and snails avoid crawling over any dry abrasive material such as gravel, sharp sand, wood ashes, diatomaceous earth, or lime. The increased production of mucus required to free themselves of these materials exhausts them and soon causes death.

I shall have to find myself some dry abrasive material – probably in the form of wood ash, I have a hearth full – and bring on some large scale mollusc discomfort.  And ideally death.

Sorry, but after losing all my Godetia I am not about to start taking prisoners…

It’s starting to feel a lot like summer

Weeks of beautiful weather, no frost since March and night time temperatures of around 10 degrees Celsius have left the garden firmly in summer mode. Alliums are flowering, as are self seeded antirrhinums.  Tree lillies are growing an inch a day and the mix of  annuals sowed outside just last week have already germinated.

hardening off cuttings

Doorstep is the perfect hardening off spot

The overwintered cuttings of begonias, fuchsia and pelargonium are romping away and are being hardened off in the front porch, out of the cold wind.  The begonias and pelargoniums have been left out all night for the last two evenings and now I can barely restrain myself from rushing to plant everything  out.

But, the big question is will there be more frost?  It feels so unlikely – especially when just last night we were in the garden until past midnight.  Yet the pretty useful gardeners almanac (not to mention the super trusty Beechgrove Garden) put early June (week 23/24)  as the safe planting out date for this location.  That is a full month away.

The fuchsias are definitely still coming indoors at night for a few weeks yet.  But some of the pelargoniums (including cuttings from plants bought at RHS Tatton Park last year) are looking so lovely, it seems a shame to hide them away unless really necessary.

Pelargonium Voodoo already in flower

The one shown on the right has been flowering for a couple of weeks now and is on temporary display outside in the front porch, where it is sunny and fairly sheltered.

If I can control the desire to rush out and plant everything tomorrow, I shall probably hedge my bets by planting the tender plants mostly in pots and keeping a few back plants indoors just in case.  Plus I’m taking cuttings from the cuttings, which root in a week or so just now, so there should be plenty of stock.

I’d be interested to know how and when other people decide it is time to brave it and move things outside for good.

Loch Ness Plant Buying Spree

There are several terrific nurseries near Inverness, but my absolute favourite is Abriachan Nursery on Loch Ness.  Not only does it have an interesting selection of Auriculas, primula and other herbaceous perennials that thrive here in the Highlands, it also has a beautiful garden that shows many of the plants in situ.

Abriachan nursery

Abriachan nursery faces on to Loch Ness

Like my back garden, Abriachan is a steeply sloping woodland garden, with both dry,  sunny and cool, shady areas.  It faces South (unlike my East facing slope). And whereas I am exposed to winds straight off the North Sea, Abriachan faces Loch Ness, benefiting from a remarkably mild & stable microclimate, given the latitude.  So, while Abriachan may be a week or two ahead of my garden and probably doesn’t get quite such heavy frost, I can be near certain that if grows there, it will grow 10 miles away on my slope (provided I plant it right!)

Blue Himalayan Poppy (Meconopsis) looking surreally stunning

Saturday I popped over to the nursery with my camera and spent a hot, sunny hour pottering around their garden. I had the place pretty much to myself and was lucky enough to see one of the most delightful botanical sights I can recall.

I emerged from a shaded path into a more open, sunny border and there was a single Himalayan Blue Poppy, backlit in the bright morning light.  There was no distracting planting competing with it.  As a result this single plant had a far more dramatic impact than the drifts I have seen (for example at Aberdeen Botanic Garden).  Not only was it absolute star of the garden yesterday – it looked like it had just arrived pristine from another planet.

Naturally I had to buy one!  I already have one establishing in the back, but at just £3 for a young plant, I decided to give one a go in the front as well.  They need to be kept well fed in order to really establish, apparently.  Heck, mine can have sirloin steak if it wants it.

To accompany it I bought a lovely maroon and yellow Euphorbia for a newly created sunny spot in the front – and happily this divided naturally  into four plants when I unpotted it.  I found a lovely spotted leaved Pulmonaria for a shady spot in the back and a dark leaved creeping violet to set it off.  All these plants are welcome to spread to their roots’ content!

Given it was the lure of a fine display of Auricula that drew me to the nursery in the first place (courtesy of their blog and Flickr group), I couldn’t leave with a choice new addition of my own.  I picked up three new Auricula, including two in shades of blues.  I already have a lovely red and yellow one for the same nursery, which I have divided into three over the years, so now I am well on my way to having a collection!

Auricula theatre showing specimens to their prime

Arbriachan had a fine, shelved display of potted Auriculas, with a simple black cloth showing off the blooms to full effect – a traditional “Auricula Threatre.”  I can see why people used to part with a week’s salary for a choice variety, though £4 per specimen was my limit (clearly I’m not a real addict).

So a definite shopping spree (I blame the fabulous summer-like weather) – but there is definitely enough choice plants to keep my coming back to Abriachan for a long while yet.  Just as well give that the front garden has now been totally overhauled and has lots of tempting gaps that need filling!

Clematis alpina and blossom

Can the garden possibly get better than it is right now?

A perfect, frost-free April last left the garden looking breathtaking and it is impossible to believe it can possible look any better than it has over the last couple of weeks.

The daffodils and tulips were left unflattened by gales, none of the petals of rhododendrons and other big blooms have been browned by frost and plenty of sun has left everything flowering and growing like crazy.

Right now the Clematis Alpina are at their absolute peak and the whole north facing border is a sea of blue and lilac as they scramble through the shrubs, trees and fence.

Clematis Alpina in full bloom

I leave them unpruned from year to year wherever possible and they have rewarded me thoroughly.   Though they prefer the North side, at least one of the cuttings I planted in the South facing border several years ago  (albeit a cool, shaded part) is scrambling its way merrily and falling down through branches in a waterfall effect.

As long as these plants are not baked around the roots, they do really well in the back garden and are virtually effort free.  They root well as cuttings, with no fancy treatment needed.  I propagate them outside in a cold greenhouse and inside with bottom heat with equal results.  Though the indoor plants start life somewhat bigger, the tough, cold accustomed plants soon catch up.

This year, for the first time, I have transplanted one of the Alpina cuttings that is growing away so well in to the front garden – just to see how it does.  I’ve put it in dappled shade, but maybe the wind will be too much for it.

Complimenting the Clematis, and in some cases completely intertwined with it, is a fine display of spring blossom.  The winds have been kind so far, so now cherry, plum, apple and pear are all blooming at the same time.

Apple blossom in the back garden (left) and front garden (right)

The pixie apple tree at the front is further on than the old bramley at the back, as it gets more sun.  The pixie tree is several eating types grafted together and it is putting on a great show, given that I think its middle graft has failed and a vertical section of trunk has split. I fear it won’t survive much longer and that perhaps this is its last hurrah.   But it has proved a tough little tree so far and the apples from the healthy top part taste lovely.

As the Spring garden peaks, I know there is a period coming where the garden takes a breather and goes mostly green, prior to the next wave of flowers.  I’ve tried to find things that look nice in May, but maybe the garden is telling me to give it a break after its heroic April efforts.