Category Archives: Random ramblings

A lesson learned: why I don’t grow lilies in the ground

I adore lilies of many kinds: true lilies, Day lilies, Peruvian lilies, anything lily-esque, in fact, and I’m grateful to be in a place where I can grow them all reasonably successfully.

But whilst I’ve always been happy to sling most kinds out into the borders to take their chance – especially Day lilies, which are as tough as old boots! – I’ve never felt inclined to do that with true lilies, ie. Lilium species, and have always chosen to grow them in pots.

This is for two main reasons.

Firstly, keeping them in containers allows for precise control of the growing media, which needs to be moist but relatively free-draining. My garden soil, despite improvement over the years, tends to waterlog in winter and dry out too easily in summer, so my assumption has always been that it would not provide reliably favourable conditions for lily cultivation.

Secondly, growing in containers enables me to keep a much closer watch on pests, mainly slugs, snails and lily beetles, all of which are a massive nuisance in most years. Being able to lift and turn the pots means that I can inspect them from all angles, which would be extremely awkward if they were planted in the ground. Also, I am prepared to use slug pellets in containers since the victims do not travel far and I can dispose of them without hedgehogs, birds etc. coming into contact with them, which means that I can effectively protect the succulent new shoots of lilies at their most vulnerable time. I prefer not to use metaldehyde pellets on the ground, so anything planted in the borders has to survive without that protection, and I’ve always assumed lilies would struggle with that.

But this spring, having some spare lily bulbs to hand, I decided to try a little experiment.

The previous summer I foolishly purchased 10 lily bulbs (from a shopping channel, as it happens) which had supposedly been held back so that when planted, would flower in October/November time and provide a most unusual and unseasonal display.

Of course, they did nothing of the sort, and not one flower deigned to appear before the first frost in November cut them down, so I then had to decide what to do with them – they would likely flower at the normal time in the next year (June/July), so they were definitely worth keeping.

Having weighed up my options for a while, I chose to re-plant 5 in a large pot and put the other 5 out into the ground to see how they would do.

I duly prepared the soil by digging in compost and manure, along with a handful of granular feed for good measure, planted the bulbs at twice their depth, and crossed my fingers.

Both sets were delayed by the low temperatures we experienced in the early part of the season, but eventually they got going, and initially there was little difference between them.

However, as soon as the slugs and snails began to be active, it became apparent that emerging lily stems are every bit as appealing to them as I thought they would be. Those in the pot, which I pelleted, remained unharmed, but I quickly lost 4 out of the 5 in the ground, eaten to nothing more or less overnight. Whether they have completely given up the ghost or will try to re-grow next year, I don’t know – I might have a dig around and see if there’s anything left that I can salvage.

As for the survivor, even though it has grown, it doesn’t look at all healthy:

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It is small, and the yellowing of the leaves suggests a deficiency to me, possibly iron. My soil is mildly alkaline, and this might be a more acid-loving species – I don’t actually know which one it is, unfortunately.

The lack of vitality is especially obvious when compared to the pampered pot-grown specimens:

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No contest, really. The plants are much taller, the foliage is a rich green and the flowerbuds are much larger and fatter.

So it would appear that in my garden, lilies in pots are definitely the way to go if I want to avoid massive losses and produce healthy plants, which, of course, I do!

A lesson learned, indeed.

Better late than never!

It’s been a while!

I normally start feeling the urge to blog some time in February/March, but 2016 has seen such a dismal start to the growing season here in my corner of the UK that I simply couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it.

The year began promisingly enough. We had a mild January following on from a very mild December, and it looked at that point as if we were destined for a pleasant, early spring, but it wasn’t to be. Without ever being especially harsh – we had no snow to speak of – the cold temperatures arrived in February and proceeded to roll all the way through March, April and May leaving the garden more or less in a state of suspended animation. Plants that had started to stir in January, mainly clematis and roses in my garden, were stopped in their tracks almost until June. Daffodils that should have been flowering in March didn’t make an appearance until almost the end of April; brunnera and pulmonarias, usually in full bloom here in April, didn’t really hit their stride until May. As for my Flagpole Cherry tree (Prunus amanogawa), the blossom on that was the latest I’ve ever seen it in the 16 years since I planted it, more or less coinciding with the unfurling of its leaves in mid-May rather than April.

So spring barely happened, and there has been little respite since then. I don’t know what the records say, but to me this has felt like the coldest, dampest June ever. Plants have grown, but oh, so slowly, because there’s been so little warmth and sun to fuel them.

And then there have been the pests. Winter and spring might have been cold for plants (and humans!) but not cold enough to see off the slugs and snails, whose numbers have been truly epic this year. I lost several emerging perennials before I’d even seen they were on their way, and it’s been a battle to keep seedlings and young plants from being decimated.

All things considered, I’m glad I decided not to grow any veg this year other than a few tomatoes – watching them struggle to get anywhere would have been too disheartening.

Still, enough moaning!

The calendar says that it is summer, and I do have some pretty things to look at, so I dusted off my camera and took a few photos yesterday.

Firstly, there are the remnants of my foxgloves:

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I believe they are Candy Mountain Mixed, though as it’s a year since I sowed them and I disposed of the packet, I’m not 100% sure! (note to self: labels!) Whatever they are, they’ve been gorgeous, rising to a stately 5 feet or so and persisting for many weeks. They are also a magnet for bumble bees, which is nice to see.

Then there are the alstroemerias – or what’s left of them after repeated slug/snail attacks:

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They’ve probably come in for the worst mauling of any of my plants this year – from afar they look good, but up close the foliage looks distinctly tatty, and I’ve more or less lost a couple of clumps. At least some have survived, though.

Next is a grouping consisting of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Blue Wave’ (which is pink because of my mildly alkaline soil, but still pretty!), Lysimachia punctata (Yellow Loosestrife), Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ (heavily munched by slugs, sadly),  and the golden-leaved Heuchera ‘Marmalade’:

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The heuchera and brunnera were new last year and are slowly establishing themselves, not helped, it has to be said by the cold spring. I was hoping to propagate them this year, but they’ve taken forever to get going, so I think I’ll leave them for now.

Another new acquisition from last year is the pretty blue hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’ which is seen threading its way through some yet-to-flower hemerocallis and crocosmia:

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It’s supposed to have a long flowering season, and as I’d like it to be a foil for other flowers (when they finally arrive!), I hope this is so. I certainly like it in association with the golden spiraea to the right, so that’s a good start!

My hanging baskets are gradually filling up:

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They’re just my usual mix of fuchsias, petunias, verbenas, impatiens, helichrysum and begonias planted in 12″ Easy Fill baskets. They can require rather a lot of watering on hot days, but thus far we’ve not had any of those, so I suppose I should be thankful for that, if nothing else!

Last but not least is a new plant to this establishment, a dahlia called ‘Ambition’:

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I am in love with this colour, especially of an evening when the setting sun slants across the garden and catches it alight:

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My grandfather grew wonderful dahlias when I was a child, but I’ve never grown one myself, so this is something of a challenge for me. I bought it as a tuber in March and started it off indoors in a tray of compost (no heat, other than ambient), eventually potting it on and hardening it off outdoors in May. I couldn’t think where to plant it out in the ground, so in the end I put it in a large pot and it seems quite happy, producing a number of flower buds on its 3 stout stems. I’m under the impression that they are greedy feeders, so I added a handful of Vitax Q4 to the potting mix of bought multipurpose compost and well-rotted garden compost, and will give it a weekly liquid feed of Phostrogen throughout the growing season. Come autumn, I will probably have to think about giving it some protection over winter, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

In the meantime, let’s hope there’s a glorious summer waiting in the wings to surprise us all…

 

 

The Late Show

I seem to have been waiting forever for my tree lilies to flower – they usually bloom throughout July and are pretty much finished by August, but with the cold, late summer we’re having this year, the little divas are at least 3 weeks late!

Still, they are definitely worth waiting for. Not only are they exquisite to look at, but the scent is quite gorgeous, and in my small, enclosed garden it builds and wafts to all corners on balmy days.

Cezanne was the first to open its petals about a week and a half ago, and here it is:

tree-lily-cezanne-31st-july

And for a sense of scale, here is a single bloom, plus (rusty!) ruler:

lily-cezanne-with-ruler-31st-july

 

Honestly, I can’t praise these things enough. I have four plants in an 18″ pot (2 Cezanne, 2 Picasso) and just those four have produced over thirty blooms between them – it’s like having the best-ever bouquet sitting down at the end of my garden for a month every year.

And they’re ridiculously easy to care for. I re-pot them into fresh multipurpose compost at the end of each growing season (or early spring the next year if I don’t get round to it!), water as needed, feed once a week through summer and into autumn (you need to build up the bulb for the next year) and that’s more or less it. They do need a bit of pest control: I pellet for slugs and snails in spring/early summer and keep a lookout for lily beetle through the growing season, but they are relatively trouble-free otherwise.

Their star turn might be brief, but I know I wouldn’t be without them – even if all I had was a windowbox, I’d find a way to grow them!

Some new arrivals

I shouldn’t be allowed near a nursery at this time of year because even though I know that my garden is full to overflowing, I can never walk out empty-handed!

Top of my “couldn’t resist” list was Heuchera “Marmalade”:

heuchera-marmalade

I’ve owned Heuchera “Plum Pudding” for quite a number of years and love it for its robustness and easygoing nature – it seems to do well no matter where I grow it – so I’ve been meaning to add another variety to my plant collection for a while now, but hadn’t been able to decide on one until I spotted Heuchera “Marmalade” at a local nursery. I was immediately drawn to its pleasing blend of hues, reddish-orange through to pale lime green, and its compact habit, so it found its way into my basket, shortly followed by Heuchera “Fire Chief”:

heuchera-fire-chief

This one is a really stunning red and will provide excellent foliage contrast in my sunny borders.

I was going to be (almost) sensible and leave it at that when I saw this little beauty:

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Brunnera macrophylla “Jack Frost”, a variegated Siberian bugloss to add to the one I already have, Brunnera macrophylla “Variegata”. The blue forget-me-not flowers will have been and gone for this year, but those gorgeous leaves are showy enough for me!

I had to make a little room in my borders to fit in my new acquisitions, and I shall have to be careful that they don’t get swamped by any of their new neighbours, but I’m sure they’ll be worth the space.

Now I just need to stay away from anywhere that sells plants for the forseeable future…or get a bigger garden!

Nature watch: damsels laying

damselflies-laying-eggs-30th-may

For about a week now I have been spotting a pair/pairs of Large Red damselflies laying eggs on the stems of emergent plants in my two water-filled containers, so I know that come May/June next year, barring accident, there will be a new generation of damsels to delight me.

I know that this species is just about the most common in the UK, but I never fail to feel honoured when these dainty, jewel-coloured insects choose my garden to reproduce in. It took a few seasons for them to find me, but now they come every year, and early summer wouldn’t be the same without them.

May catch-up, long overdue!

My problem with blogging about gardening at this time of year is that I find myself so busy doing things I don’t seem to find much time to write about them.

However, happily – or unhappily! – the weather gods have decided to bestow upon us a typical Bank Holiday weekend of patchy rain and gloom, so I have no excuse not  to fire up the computer and record at least some of my doings.

March saw me making the first sowings in the veg department, namely my tomatoes. Many people start them in late winter, but as I don’t have a heated greenhouse – or any greenhouse! – the earliest I can realistically expect to begin is a week or so before the end of March.

I sowed 3 varieties, “Sungold”, “Gardeners’ Delight” and “Marmande”, in shallow pans of sieved multipurpose compost, placing them on the hood of my tropical fish tank for bottom heat – I do actually own a windowsill propagator, but if I can use the heat from something else, all the better! – and they came up in a matter of days. As soon as they were through, I moved them to a sunny windowsill and was lucky that we enjoyed a lot of bright weather at that time, which enabled them to grow into stocky little seedlings ready for pricking out individually  into 6cm pots. Very swiftly they outgrew those, so I re-potted them into the 12cm pots that should hopefully last them until they make their final move into growbags at the end of this month.

All of that seems fairly simple, and indeed it is, except for the fact that without a greenhouse I have to play a very canny game to grow them on in the early stages.

My basic aim is to get them outside as soon as possible and as often as possible in order to free up space indoors for other things and to enable them to grow in the best light, but of course, being tender plants that really don’t enjoy temperatures much below 10C, I have to be very careful about how and when I put them out.

Last year was a bit of a doddle, being one of the mildest springs I can remember, but this year’s Arctic blast in late April gave me many a tricky moment. Some days it was fine to put them out, but they needed to come in overnight; some days it was okay to leave them out overnight as well as during the day, and others it wasn’t suitable to put them out day or night, so I spent quite a lot of time carting them to and fro, often changing my mind mid-move!

It seems to have worked out alright thus far, though. Here are nine of them:

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For the purposes of photography I obviously needed to remove the enviromesh cover that I place over them for protection from the elements, but I put it back immediately as I like to keep them under some kind of cover for as long as possible.

The remaining four plants are still short enough (just!) to reside in my growhouse (a cupboard-shaped coldframe, basically), but they will soon need staking and moving on to join their friends:

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They look a tad yellow in that photo, but they aren’t in real life – just a trick of the light.

So, that’s the saga of my tomatoes: I shall be heartily glad when the last frost date has passed (last week of May here) and I can finally stop trundling them around!

At the end of March I turned my attention to some other salad crops, thankfully, less Prima Donna-ish ones than tomatoes! As the weather seemed quite mild at the time, I thought I’d try sowing some radishes directly into a container outside with a single layer of horticultural fleece for protection. After little more than a week, much to my delight, they emerged, and by the 6th April they looked like this:

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Roll on a month and now they look like this:

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There are two varieties here: the round ones at the front are “Jolly” and the cylindrical ones at the back are “French Breakfast”. I grew both last year and liked the taste equally, though on balance if I had to choose between them I’d probably prefer  to grow “Jolly” because it matures more quickly.

I’ve never actually tried to sow seed outdoors as early as the end of March/beginning of April, but I thought I’d give it a go and having been rewarded with my first harvesting-sized radishes in only four weeks,  I shall definitely be doing it again!

I also started some salad bowl lettuces and spring onions at the same time, germinating them in  containers indoors then putting them out under fleece in mid-April, but as yet they are showing little enthusiasm for getting going – I think the late April cold snap may have had more than a little to do with that. Hopefully they’ll put on a spurt when the weather turns a little warmer again.

And apart from a small sowing of coriander (indoors) that’s pretty much it for veg. I will be growing a couple of runner bean plants, more to fill a space on a fence than anything else, but I won’t be doing French beans, perpetual spinach or carrots this year as I simply don’t have the room to get a decent enough crop.

I haven’t even touched on ornamentals in this post, but that will be my subject next time – hopefully before June!

Butterflies and blooms

Well, one butterfly – a Peacock:

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The flower it’s basking on is a pink Bergenia cordifolia, good old elephant’s ears, and it made such a pretty picture I couldn’t resist snapping it.

This past week has been the first time this year that I’ve seen butterflies out and about, which is a clear indicator that temperatures are on the rise and that summer is just around the corner, though of course there will still be a danger of frost in this area until mid May, so I won’t be putting any tender plants out just yet!

 

Counting the Cost of Winter

Every Spring it’s about now that I start looking around to see what has and hasn’t made it through the winter season.

Last year was exceptionally mild, so mild in fact that my non-hardy fuchsias in containers not only survived but didn’t even drop their leaves, which is a first for me in this garden. I didn’t lose a single plant, as far as I can recall.

This year was a more typical Southern British winter in respect of temperature with many nights touching or dipping below freezing, so for the past few weeks I have been casting anxious eyes at my newer and as yet untested-for-hardiness acquisitions to glimpse signs of re-emergence.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, the plant I was perhaps most concerned about was Agastache “Blue Boa”. I have grown agastache from seed in the past but never had it survive a winter outdoors; “Blue Boa”, however, is clearly made from sterner stuff and is already sending up some sturdy little shoots. Not only that, but a couple of insurance cuttings that I took late last summer in order to hedge my bets also appear to have survived the winter in my coldframe, so that’s a bonus!

Next on the will-it-get-hit list was my collection of alstroemeria. I bought them early in 2013 so their first winter was no test at all: this year they have had to contend with protracted periods of freezing, but from the looks of the fresh green shoots that I am beginning to see pushing up through the mulch, they have passed with flying colours. All five varieties, the two in containers and the three in the ground, appear to be present and correct, so I am mightily chuffed at that!

It hasn’t all been good news, though.

As ever, I have lost a few things that were over-wintering in my coldframe, namely half of my rosemary cuttings, 3 or 4 lavender cuttings and my orange-flowered diascia cuttings (all the pink-flowered ones survived, strangely enough!).

And once again I have failed with my begonia tubers: only 2 out of the 6 that I attempted to save show signs of life. Whether I left them outside too long, kept them too damp, too dry, too warm or too cold I just don’t know, but they were mostly rotten when I came to examine them in late January and have had to be replaced. Better luck next year, I suppose!

Early Spring – tasks outside

Spring is well and truly here according to the calendar, but I can’t say that it really feels like it in my garden.

I have some miniature narcissi in bloom, along with one or two clusters of pulmonaria and a couple of chaenomeles flowers, but that’s pretty much it at the moment:

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Oh, apart from my primula that I divided into three last year – that seems to have been flowering on and off all winter, much to my delight, and is now shaping up for a proper springtime effort:

primroses-march-20th

It looks like I will be able to divide these two plants again: the one on the left appears to have 3 potential crowns and the one on the right  has at least two, so if that proves to be the case, come next spring I should have made six plants from my original one and will probably start planting a few more in the ground (I’ve already put one in, as seen in the first picture).

So, there may not be a great deal to admire at the moment, but there is certainly lots to do!

Since I last posted I have been busy reorganising my borders, digging up and dividing many of my perennials and using that as an opportunity to incorporate a hearty dose of well-rotted horse manure. My soil is medium-heavy and not particularly well-drained in some places, so whilst I am happy in most years to simply throw a surface mulch around the plants and let the worms do the work of dragging it down, I do feel an occasional deep-ish cultivation and addition of organic matter is necessary to perk things up.

I’ve also been planting out some of the phlox that I bought as small bare-root specimens a while back. At the time they arrived I judged them to be too small to be thrown straight into the ground and allowed to take their chances amongst the established plants, so I potted them up into a 12″ planter of multi-purpose compost and spent last year cosseting them into much beefier fellows that now look eminently robust enough to fight their corner.

It might seem odd to buy perennials bare-root then spend time and money containerising them for a season, but I’ve found over the years that I lose a lot fewer plants that way. In my experience it’s far too easy, even in a small garden, to plant those small pieces of dormant crown typically supplied by post and accidentally leave them to get swallowed up by their neighbours or gobbled by slugs and snails; growing them on in large pots means that I can nurture them in a much better-controlled environment until I feel they’re ready for the rough and tumble of border life.

I’m still in the process of dealing with my plants in pots, namely my patio clematis and hostas, which I like to re-pot into fresh compost every 2 or 3 years, and, in the case of the hostas, divide up and discard the older woodier centres. Both will soon need their tender new growth protecting from slugs and snails, so I shall be ready with the organic slug pellets as soon as I am suspicious of any activity.

One last thing I want to mention is a new acquisition from late last summer, Agastache “Blue Boa”. Not knowing how hardy it might be, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it over winter, so I left it in its pot of multi-purpose compost tucked up against my south-facing fence and basically crossed my fingers! Seems I got away with it:

agastache-blue-boa-march-20th

We had quite a few nights this winter where the temperatures went down to -5C (unlike the previous winter when we scarcely even had a frost!) so it’s clearly capable of surviving a bit of a freeze. Being in free-draining compost in a container may have helped too as it probably doesn’t like “wet feet” during cold weather.

All in all, things are moving along nicely and I’m enjoying the feeling of easing my way into the gardening year – time enough to panic when all my plug plants start arriving next month…

Late winter catch-up

I have to confess that I am, for the most part, a fair-weather gardener. Much as I wish I were one of those hardy types that can chuck on a jumper or two and gleefully bound into the garden in near-Arctic conditions to dig the veg patch, I am not. I have never found it remotely fun to trudge around in rain or bone-chilling winds, so it’s only with the greatest reluctance that I will drag myself out at this time of year to do anything beyond chucking peelings in the compost bin!

But some things need to be done, whether I like it or not, and this morning saw me venturing out for the first time this season to knock off one or two jobs that I can ignore no longer.

Top of my list was re-potting my tree lilies. Every year at about this time, i.e. before they start into active growth, I like to dig up my tree lily bulbs, replace about a third of the compost in the pot with fresh multipurpose, add some food (this year I’ve put in a handful or two of Vitax Q4) then re-plant them nice and deep having removed the old stems from last year. I usually find one or two self-propagated offspring kicking around by the main bulbs, so I can pot those up separately if I choose.

Strictly speaking, this probably isn’t a necessary annual task, but I like to do it as it gives me a chance to assess the condition of the bulbs and get a head-start in the war on pests: they’re not prone to much, but if I spot any hibernating lily beetles, snails or vine weevil grubs I can dispose of them before they’re a problem.

Next, I moved on to pruning my clematis. I don’t have many – just 6, in fact – but they all require cutting down to about 45cm (18in) at this time, preferably before the new buds start to burst, which can happen remarkably early in some years. They also need a feed and a mulch, but I’ll have to get down the garden centre for some well-rotted horse manure before I can do that.

On to the roses, of which I have only a handful, but they all need pruning back whilst still dormant so should really be done by mid-February around here. I have to admit that I don’t follow any particular rules for this: I just remove anything dead or dying, cut weak growth back hard and take a little off the stronger stems. I’ll also remove anything that’s getting in the way or taking too much space from a neighbour, but that’s about it. Then chuck on some muck (which I’ll have to get) and the job’s a good ‘un.

I  also cut down some herbaceous plant stems that were left on from last year, but only those plants that I know are reliably hardy here; anything slightly dodgy I like to leave with its previous season’s top growth on for protection until early spring.

And that was pretty much it. An hour or so of mildly shivery work and my to-do list is now a lot shorter than it was. Hurrah!

Time for a cuppa…