Sunday, 27 February 2011

Maturing Herbacious Borders; from 2007 to date

Borders must be bonkers, a bulging mass of colour and foliage merging into one. Creating and working borders is tremendous fun and hugely gratifying. As an added bonus, the degree of work required seems to diminish as the maturing plants crowd out stubborn weeds, leaving us gardeners the jobs we love; planting, propagating, splitting, repositioning where required to improve the overall effect. 

Our gardening venture started with the renovation of the Greenhouse border. The border is situated on the far east side of the garden, within the walled garden. The border is substantial size, approximately 35x4m deep. The conditions are favourable, west facing, good balance of morning shade and sunlight exposure. Main challenges; high potential for wind damage as the wind hurtles up the path and the soil is the heavy, thick, claggy variety. Working it over the years has improved the soil, but muscles will always be required. We started work in 2007 and have since, be it slowly, ascertained that, apart from sheer physical labour, costly plant purchases, bulk propagation, oodles of plant knowledge, composition skill, soil conditioning,... the most valuable ingredient to achieve bulging borders, is unfortunately, patience. Agreed, immensely annoying.
Greenhouse Border July 2007
Learning to combat the overwhelming enthusiasm and excitement on planting new plants in the border and expecting them to be imminently huge, beautiful bellowing specimens, perfectly positioned, continues to be difficult. Some plants take ages to find their own, some die on you, wrong positioning, or worse the purchased (or carefully propagated) treasure does not actually suit the border at all. There are many doom scenario's, which most gardeners will recognise. We have had them all, but that is all part and parcel of this game and what makes gardening the joy that it is.

In the past, this border was originally a childhood project of my husband and his sister, working it on their weekends off from school, into a charming herb border. The plan for its rejuvenation was to keep some of the original features of the border, such as the alternating Hidcote and Rosea Lavender hedge and established structural plants such as the Rosemary Miss Jessopp's Upright, Salvia Officinalis, but to add more height, structure and variety to the border. The walls are home to two (presumed) Green Gage plum trees. One of them certainly is, as it has produced fruit, most of the likely Cambridge Gage variety. The other is in the capable hands of my husband, undergoing much needed re-invigoration treatment. A bounty of fruit is surely to follow soon, my wicker basket is at the ready....

Thanks to the magic of digital photography we have a visual progress log, starting from our initial efforts to the current day. Sadly, our enthusiasm clouded the foresight to take photos from a single spot, so the overview does not quite paint the accurate picture, but progress can clearly be seen. Timing wise, the photo's were all taken in July apart from the 2010 photos which were taken in June.

July 2007: Result of initial exploits
The fruit trees are a tad wild, but the border shows much promise, with new numerous new additions, such as; Monarda Croftway Pink, Monarda Schneewittchen, Clary Sage, Cardoon, Verbena Bonariensis, Sedum Spectabile Brilliant, Eupatorium Maculatum Atropurpureum, Eupatorium Chocolate, Blue Echinops, Echinops Sphaerocephalus Artic Glow and for structure Buddleja Davidii. In addition, two new roses adorn the wall; Felicite Perpetue and Sir Cedric Morris. Lessons learned; the Cardoon was fast outgrowing its central position, starting initial doubt as to its suitability. Clary Sage, lovely as it is, is a biennial. We decided that due to the scale of this border and work involved we could not be involved with annuals or biennials. From now on perennials only. Furthermore this border will include only strong, tough plants. Careful staking of Delphiniums for example is not for us, instead height is achieved by plants such as Veronicastrum which have good upright habit and require limited to no support. The ramblers were to be joined by other varieties, so a sturdy wall support structure was required.

July 2008: The discovery of Alliums
Slightly overzealous allium purchasing, but the result is delightful. There is substantial, and continued, risk of brutal bulb impaling in this border, but that is something I have come to terms with. The Cardoon has made it to 2008, growing larger and testing our resolve. It does look lovely though.
Greenhouse Border July 2008
New plants planted that year; Bronze and Green Fennel, a range of lovely Thalictrums including the mighty Thalictrum Elin. Hardy geraniums planted in droves, including blue, purple, white and pink Phaeum, Renardi, Sanguineum varieties. Silver foliage is added; Silver mint and Stachys Byzantina. Stringent rules are being broken already; one annual variety is planted, Salvia Viridis in blue, pink and white. It is a prolific self seeder, so the planting thereof is a one off. Lessons learned: Cardoon getting too big, creating gaping holes in the border. Unfortunately, it also seem to attract masses of black fly, destroying new growth making the plant rather unsightly... prospects for its survival looks bleak. The Lavender hedge is undergoing rejuvenation. Pruned heavily in the autumn of 2007 and for 2008 flowering is limited to strengthen the plants. Where required replacements are planted. Pruning lavenders after flowering is crucial to stop them becoming leggy, as a result their pruning is now a big to do in our annual gardening calendar. The Monardas hated the wet winter, the Croftway Pinks and Schneewittchen did not make it and needed replacing. Monarda's seem more sensitive than originally thought. Roses making good progress, though Felicite Perpetue has just the two shoots. Wishing there were more. The wall supports were a huge job for a project of this scale. Annoyingly materials, particularly suitably large steel supports are surprisingly difficult to come by, at least for amateur punters.

July 2009: One border becomes two
To achieve the desired effect, the border is expanded to become a set of parallel borders. The old lavender hedge in new border is proudly replaced, by the result of successful cutting exploits.

Greenhouse Borders July 2009



New plants include; charming Goat's Rue inspired by Jekka's 2009 winning Chelsea Flower Show stand; Valerian officinalis, and much loved Agastaches. The planting is purposely similar in both borders in an attempt to achieve some form of symmetry. Plants are thriving in the new border as the soil is lighter and less claggy than the original border.

Greenhouse Border July 2009


Creative use of rusty plant supports help support the plants and combat the wind. Experimental planting of garlic bulbs in the border has worked, creating wonderfully weird allium type plants piercing through the thicket. Additions of audacious dark pinks, helps lift the overall look of the border by the planting of Allium Sphaerocephalon, Sanguisorba Officinalis and Knautia Macedonia both dwarf and tall varieties.
For those whom noticed,... with a heavy heart, the Cardoon saga ended in 2009 with it's rather brutal but required, expulsion.

June 2010: Starting to look the part
The borders are at last, starting to bulge. The Thalictrums, in particular, are coming into their own. The Eupatoriums, particularly the Chocolate, (recently renamed Ageratina Altissima for some reason), add great structure and colour to the back of the border.

Greenhouse borders June 2010

Cirsium Rivulare, for additional punch, planted in both borders.  They grow into huge plants, requiring more space than originally planned. Neighbouring plants are being smothered. Additional pink, white and dark pink Astrantias were planted. Astrantias are wonderful. Sturdy yet delicate flowers, very upright so no need for supports and they flowering for the entire season. Maxima, Roma, Major white Giant are lovely varieties but there are many more I have my eye on. One of my favourites in the border, is the Welsh onion which adds great architectural structure.
Greenhouse borders June 2010
The Russian Sages are doing well, although just as the Monarda's, they tend to prefer the new border. Lessons learned; Hydrangea Paniculata was pruned back hard in March 2010, so unsurprisingly there are almost no buds/flowers this season. May have been a tad harsh, but it was getting too big. Hopefully 2011 will see it booming with flowers again. Similarly, the Buddleja was cut back hard, but the regrowth was rather leggy and thin. March 2011 pruning will be less harsh. The Valerian has been left to grow too big for too long. Needs splitting almost annually. The Echinops Sphaerocephalus Artic Glow is overgrowing and self seeding all over the place. Still like the plant, though its flowering period is a little short. Just as the blue varieties, it tends to look unsightly mid to bottom. Planting in front of them needs to hide that better. 

All hope is on 2011...


Greenhouse borders February 2011

Friday, 25 February 2011

Gardening and Zimmer frames

Still too often, a passion for gardening is met by giggles and blank stares. Why is it that gardening still seems to be viewed as something to do when one is retired? Revealing my age is certainly not on the cards, but I am certainly nowhere in that category. Why does one garden? Passion for growing when young perhaps. In my case, that could not be further from the truth. I was fortunate to have spent the majority of my formative years in East Africa, in Kenya. The sheer scale and range of the plants, the variety and awe of the landscapes, wildlife and weather conditions should inspire anyone to pick up a shovel or if so required, purchase one... Don't get me wrong, I certainly appreciated my surroundings and the sheer beauty of the plants and flowers around us, but the idea of gardening never even entered my mind. Later at university, I was introduced to the concept of gardening, but merely as a rather tedious chore one required to do prior to parents visiting. One could always tell when my parents were heading our way... I can certainly share a great depth of knowledge as to the speed at which small gardens can overgrow and the sheer height to which normal lawn grass can actually grow - without any assistance what so ever.

So what led to the current passion? My mother and her passion for roses. She has a wonderful eye, and always gardened, creating the most beautiful and bold gardens, where ever we lived. One of her trade secrets was rose cuttings, in fact any cuttings. It was and still is fascinating to see, what is basically a stick stuck in some earth, develop into a plant.  Her most audacious though was growing a Cape Gooseberry from seeds obtained from berry decoration on a sumptuous Wittamer gateau. For those mere mortals who don't know their pastry, Wittamer, is one of the best patisseries in Brussels. Naturally we were all a tad miffed as we wanted to eat the berry...

Roses though, are her favourite, and her passion finally managed to spark an interest. I just started, enjoying seeing plants grow, creating spaces, combining plants, making horrendous mistakes but all the while learning about plants. To the chagrin of my brother, it also included watching endless gardening programmes on tv. Oh hail Alan and Monty...

Hardly surprising that I too have a passion for roses, in particular the mad, lethally prickly, tough but always majestic, ramblers. They grow with such speed to huge proportions, have thorns that could feature in Jaws, but yet produce the most stunning and delicate flower displays imaginable. Not surprisingly, several grace the Greenhouse border; Kiftsgate, Sir Cedric Morris, Rambling Rector, Long John Silver and Felcite Perpetue. The rosewalk  is adorned with Veilchenblau, Bleu Magenta and Rose-Marie Viaud. It does not stop there though, the rest of the garden includes Cecile BrunnerPaul's Himalayan Musk and many climbers, planted a long time ago, which we have yet to identify.

Gardening comes highly recommended and certainly needn't require the presence of Zimmer Frames. Though I hope that even, when so required, I will still be brandishing my shovel. It is an absolute joy.

Oh, and mum,.. plant providers and nurseries, seed suppliers, magazine publishers, manufacturers of tools, garden machinery, wheelbarrows, plant supports, wellies, etc.. salute you!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Definitive Design for 2011 Kitchen Garden

My mind is made up. After weeks of fastidious pondering, the design for this year’s kitchen garden is final. Hopefully, it will be successful as I have (be it possibly presumptuous) included perennial vegetables (Rhubarb, Horseradish, Asparagus, Welsh Onion, Elephant Garlic and Artichokes) for longevity. Apart from long term structure and delectable produce; these plants provide lovely foliage and allure.

2010 Kitchen Garden
Last years design was very simple, linear, using solely the plant varieties, bean wigwams and hazel pea sticks for height to make up the structure. Lovely as it was, this year the plan is more ambitious. For 2011, the plan is a Parterre type design, although without the Buxus hedging. The vegetables will both fill out the beds as well as the borders, which will mean bulk planting and in some cases, planting them closer together to achieve the desired look. A set of strategically placed Rhubarb plants will be used to create the central focus points, from which beds and narrow paths will run. Paths will just be covered with bark/wood chippings for easy maintenance. Height will again come from charming bean supports and hazel sticks. Only yesterday a fellow blogger kindly suggested the Villandry Kitchen Garden in France for inspiration, which helped to confirm my (admittedly reticent) confidence in the design. For added effect, colour and additional insect attraction, a row of Sedum Spectabile Brilliant and hedge of Lavender Angustifolia Elizabeth  have already been planted. The Lavender follows the planting of the rest of the walled garden, which is crucial.

To visualise the design, I road tested the online Garden Planner Design software. Despite it being a useful and user-friendly tool, I decided against taking on the annual subscription. We are meticulous in our planting, which admittedly, means that the measuring tape makes a frequent appearance, but I still prefer to manually draw the plans. Perhaps one day, it may be worth looking into this software again, although for the moment I prefer the old route.

In terms of planting, last years experience is the guide for this year exploits. Look no further than what worked last year, favourites, not so popular etc. For example, contrary to heightened expectation, my generous perpetual spinach planting was alas superfluous and could have made space for other goodies. Our most popular veggies;
  1. Chard Bright Lights 
  2. Beetroot Cylindra 
  3. Charlotte potatoes 
  4. Lettuce – Various red and green picking varieties
  5. Runner Beans White Lady 
  6. Beans – Borlotto Sanguino Climber, French Bean Trionfo Violetto, Yellow Runner bean: Cornetti Meraviglia di Venezia, Snow Pea Gigante and Broad Beans
  7. Kale; Cavolo Nero, Red Bor and Dwarf Kale
Chard deserves to be a more popular vegetable, being not just terribly tasty, but delightfully beautiful. Not at all fussy, easily sown direct into our heavy clay soil. Remarkably slugs, nor caterpillars seemed the slightest bit interested to devour it, which meant that it remains looking good throughout its long season. This year therefore, no spinach, but instead two types of Chard will grace the veg patch; Chard White Silver and last years successful Chard Bright Lights.

Potatoes! How often does one hear the rather flat, “It’s not worth it, they are so cheap to buy in the supermarket” argument, but my goodness are they fun and so delicious. There is nothing like the anticipation in digging up the generous heaps of golden nuggets for the pot. That reminds me, must look into a potato fork, as I sadly did (accidentally) brutally spear some of the better specimens, which is just heart breaking. They turned out as was promised on the tin; delicious. They did tend to break up easily when boiling, so go steady, but just delicious to eat. The plant itself is attractive, with lovely lilac flowers and did not seem take umbrage with our heavy soil, nor their being partly planted in semi-shade. This years potato exploits will be tripled to include; Pink Fur, Nicola and Cara. I hope the actual plants have the same nature and appeal as that of the Charlottes, but that remains to be seen. Our new specimens are gently chitting as we speak, which incidentally takes much longer than I had ever thought. Sadly, patience I have but in short supply…

Kale deserves a mention. Just stunning in the kitchen garden, delicious, nutritious and generous beyond the call of duty, seeing one, long into the winter season. We planted Cavolo Nero, Red Bor and Dwarf Kale in adjacent rows, which was beautiful. The dark Cavolo Nero leaves really set off the Red Bor and the lighter green of the Dwarf Kale. Mind the eagle eyed pigeons on the young plants, they were only too eager to make their mark. Later in the season, I did have the odd caterpillar problem, but as there was enough for all, so it was not too much of an issue.

So this year, will see the return of the 2010 most popular veg expanded with additional varieties. For example, I am keen to try some of the more exciting beetroot varieties; Boltardy, Chioggia and Brupees Golden. Asparagus will see a comeback in the chosen varieties; Gijnlim, Backlim and eagerly anticipated Purple Passion. Although, they are not expected to make an impact for some years to come. Hopefully they will like their new home, as the rest of our soon to be sown and planted treasures….

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Kitchen garden garbles

Are you at all like me? With the end of the month nearing, the eagerly awaited garden glossies come through the letterbox, just too much excitement for any normal person to fathom. I usually start by flicking through in a mad rage to scan and take in as much as possible, prioritising areas of interest. The small print does eventually come to light, although admittedly at a gentler pace over the course of the month. Any acquired knowledge thereof, will hopefully make me a better gardener.

The bold yellow print on the cover of the March 2011 edition of the BBC Gardens Illustrated certainly sounded very interesting indeed; ‘Planning your perfect veg plot’.

Our veggie patch project still in its infancy, but ensued with much enthusiastic, be it amateur, endeavour. The designated patch is located within the walled garden, which includes a stunning peony border (currently somewhat worse for wear in our battle to kill the happily established ground elder), Rambler- and Gallica packed rose walk, historic apple espaliers, perennial borders, mature fruit cage and enough lavender to give the South of France a run for its money. The veg patch was rescued last year from excitable overgrowth and assigned to be the area to produce delectable vegetables. As part and parcel of the walled garden, it has to match the rest of the walled garden, in all its beauty and interest. The challenge therefore is to create a stunning little vegetable haven, with continued interest throughout the seasons, fitting to its surroundings, whilst providing the eager household with fresh veggie satisfaction.

One can therefore understand my excitement as to the prospect of a detailed article entitled ‘How to plan your perfect kitchen garden’, penned by the DIY veg queen herself, Alys Fowler. In all her wisdom, Alys is much respected in our household, though admittedly, for us, the true veg and all round plant guru, can only be her majestic self, Carol Klein, affectionately dubbed as ‘me-veg’.

Despite lovely photography, the article failed to cut the mustard. Unfortunately, more often editorial on this topic never seem to go beyond the obvious. "Preparing the site, shady spots only to be used for water butts, compost bins and/or sheds, bed sizes to be sized so one can actually reach in to work them, pathways required to get one from A to B, cook ones produce alfresco, plant supports are practical…" Bit of a bummer really….

The worst though, is the decking-esque obsession with raised beds. The dreaded raised bed issue and the purchase thereof, despite their being rather unsightly, is in my view a waste of valuable vegetable space, money, and drying hazards as these beds require more frequent watering. We have ‘natural beds’, created every year, depending on the design, by just being spaces dedicated for growing vegetables and not spaces to walk on. We therefore have annual narrow pathways, covered with any kind of bark/wood chippings, leading around the ‘beds’. With some careful and cosmetic shovelling one can even, if so desired, create them to be somewhat raised. Cheaper, more pleasing on the eye and with the annual digging over of the site, the wood/bark chippings help to loosen our very heavy clay soil. In terms of veg patch editorial, one is looking for advice as to;
  1. Which vegetables look good as well as taste good? What conditions do they require to look and taste their best? Which pests to look out for? And how long do they look good? For example, this year three types of asparagus will be planted into the patch. One of the chosen varieties is Purple Passion. I read somewhere, that in addition to being very tasty, when the asparagus fern at the end of their season, the fern is purple-ish. If correct, that is interesting information when designing the plot layout. 
  2. There seem to be more and more veg design programmes available on the internet. Are they at all decent? What do the experts think?
  3. Any ideas as to vegetable partner planting? This year I am partnering elephant garlic and artichokes as both produce stunning stately plants, that not only look good, but taste good. If one lets the garlic flower though, does that inhibit the taste/quality of the cloves?
  4. There are so many suppliers of vegetable seeds, plants etc., but what should one look out for when ordering? Who’s the best?
  5. Tips from established and experienced veg patchers, for example as those working in the stunning Productive Gardens at Heligan in Cornwall 
  6. On the subject of plant supports, which ones are the best? Should be growing our own supply of hazels or is one best to purchase bamboo’s or longer lasting metal frames?
  7. Lessons learned by eager gardeners from last year’s pottering; what to do better this year? For example, last year my proud celeriac harvest included a set of vegetables not larger than marbles. Delicious they were, but that failed to disband my disappointment. What do celeriacs really crave in terms of conditions? Should I have left them longer? Do they actually continue to grow during the winter or would they just have become a nice snack for eager slugs?
Agreed much of this information is probably available in the various books available on the subject, by Carol, Alys, Monty the RHS etc, but as a magazine is a monthly medium, we look to it for more current ideas, comment, advice. This article sadly failed on that front. Oh well, there’s always next month’s…!

In the meantime though, any advice, comments or better yet answers, are welcome!
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