Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day: Persicaria 'Fat Domino'

This plant always makes me smile at this time of the year: it's a reminder of a wonderful afternoon at Knoll Gardens in the company of owner Neil Lucas's enthusiasm a few years ago. He had many Persicaria to show us that day, and it was 'Fat Domino' that stole my heart with its large flower heads waving to me from the nursery area.

It's proved to be an easy care perennial since I placed it in the lower terrace bed; it only needs cutting down at the end of winter and then given a topping of mulch to see it through the year. It's rewarded me with over 60 flower heads from one plant, and when I peered below the leaves yesterday, it looks like I have a plant ripe for division into two. This is earmarked for behind the white phlox you can see in the background as there's a hidden gap there which needs to be filled.

I've also cleared a space in front of the phlox, which is thick with alliums in spring, but now needs something added there for later interest. I've been pondering this space for a while and luckily a wonderful visit to Ulting Wick last week supplied some much needed inspiration.

My photo doesn't do justice to Philippa Burrough's deft combination of Persicaria with Miscanthus sinensis 'Ferner Osten', but it's sufficient as a visual reminder to have something similar here at VP Gardens. Her Miscanthus is too tall for the place earmarked as it'll go in front of my Persicaria. A quick search of Knoll's website shows several other possibilities at around one metre in height, with similar pinky blooms which look perfect.

It's just a matter of deciding which one.

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Are you looking at me?

A frog gives me a stern look on my garden steps

I don't know who leapt the furthest, me or the frog I found in the garden on Sunday. I was tidying a quiet corner of the garden and this beautiful sight was my reward, once I'd got over the surprise! It got me thinking, I don't have a pond at VP Gardens, but frogs do seem to like it here. There's a stream nearby which helps, so what am I doing right to encourage them?

This article from The Guardian has some pointers. Apparently frogs spend two years on land before they breed and they love lots of leaf litter and log piles to hide in. These places are also a good source of favourite food such as slugs. I have plenty of leaf litter courtesy of the trees nearby and my 'compost direct' policy, plus I've hidden a number of small log piles in quiet corners. Shady areas and the clay soil probably help as parts of the garden remain damp even in exceptionally dry weather.

I've since realised I had an improvised pond in the shape of a small tub trug tucked away and forgotten behind the pergola in my side garden. I decided to tidy this away on Sunday and the frog leapt up when I tipped the water out. It seems this was an ideal pond, at over 2 feet in depth and with a few discarded pots within to help the frog out if needed.

To rephrase a well-known film quotation, it seems that 'if you leave it they will come'. My frog soon dived into the shelter of the ivy at the side of the garden after I took this photo. I've returned the tub trug back to its hiding place in the hope it'll return to it in time.

What wildlife encounters have you had lately?

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Weekend Wandering: Countryfile Live

Robinson's shire horses strutting their stuff

I've just got back from an amazing day at Countryfile Live at Blenheim Palace, the mother of all country shows packed with show rings, displays, talks, things to make and do, plus plenty of shopping for good measure. I particularly enjoyed the pictured display in the Equine Arena, where I also learned there are only 200 grey shire horses in the world. I'm sure the handsome 19 hands high stallion I saw there is doing his best to bring those numbers up!

The show map and exhibitors/talks listing
It would be useful if handy guides like this one are available at RHS shows

The map extract above gives you an idea of how vast the show is and the variety of what's on offer. As well as the handy map, it also lists the 500 or so exhibitors, plus it gives the timetable for the various talks and displays on offer at the 10 theatres, stages and arenas throughout the show. There are also plenty of things to do such as canoeing, and off-road driving, plus all kinds of hands-on activities for you to try.

If you are going tomorrow, do grab one of these maps on your way in as the online map is woefully inadequate, though the accessibility map is a much better bet if you miss out on one. If you're more mobile, be prepared for plenty of walking, both from the car park and around the show. If you're trying to walk 10,000 steps per day, this is easily achievable within the 100 acre site.

Lunchtime along one of the main avenues
There is location and direction signage throughout the show, though more could be done to make the direction signs clearer and each zone more distinctive. You'll need that map to get around!

Despite Wednesday's miserable weather, on the whole the going underfoot wasn't that bad when I was there on Thursday. There are plenty of places to sit down throughout the show, mainly of the straw bale variety. I also saw plenty of bales stacked up on the way in, possibly to patch up any boggy areas that developed later, or to bring in as extra seating.

Whilst there was quite a long queue to get in when I arrived at 9.30am (relatively fast moving), the show itself didn't feel overcrowded. Visitors were spoilt for choice for eating and shopping possibilities without much queueing, though I did see some long lines waiting for the loos around lunchtime. Despite those niggles, there's a relaxed vibe and everyone I met was thoroughly enjoying themselves.

One of my favourite areas, the Wildlife Zone

There are plenty of activities sprinkled around the show, especially in the National Trust and Go Wild areas, plus around the River Glyne. Some of them - such as canoeing and off-road driving - need to be booked, so I'd recommend heading to these areas first thing to ensure you get a place. You'll also need to book if you want to see the Countryfile presenters at the Countryfile Theatre. All activities and talks are included in the cost of the ticket; the only extras I found were car parking (£5), souvenir brochures (the aforementioned map is free), plus any refreshments and shopping purchases you may wish to make (you're welcome to bring a picnic).

A quiet moment of relaxation available in the National Trust area
One of the more unusual activities is the opportunity to don some headphones and immerse yourself in nature
For those of you more used to my reports from gardening shows, I'd say there is some gardening content for you to find, though you will need to search for it. For me it made a refreshing change to have a much wider scope to explore which is still aligned with my interests.

I was surprised the RHS didn't have their exhibition stand here even though they were listed for a talk on their Greening Grey Britain campaign. A missed opportunity for them perhaps?

A collage of views from the Stihl Timbersports area

A major highlight was the Stihl Timbersports® arena, which is just as well as I was their guest for the day. I saw this for the first time at Westonbirt last year (I wasn't their guest then) and a repeat viewing did not disappoint. I find the Underhand Chop discipline shown in the main picture the most dramatic one to watch as the athletes stand on the log they're chopping in two. I'm always convinced they're going to give themselves a major injury in the process.

I saw how strong the competitors are as they effortlessly lifted some of the huge logs they use into their final positions on stage. These logs are carefully selected according to specific criteria to ensure a fair competition and as I had a backstage pass I could see them all lined up ready for the rest of the event.

A sign that made me giggle - no standing on the tables
There were chainsaw carving demonstrations between the sessions with some beautiful sculptures the result, which were auctioned off for charity. Jane Moore also gave several talks on wildlife gardening which were packed with top tips.

There was a cracking soundtrack too, which got the audience dancing and tapping their feet. No wonder the tables at the back had warning notices on them - click the pic to see what it said ;)

What I didn't know until later was the stage backdrop had blown down earlier owing to the blustery day and the team had their work cut out to make the stage safe enough for the demonstrations to take place. As you can see from the collage picture, despite this hiccup the show well and truly did go on.

Thanks to HROC and Stihl I had a wonderful time. I'm planning on a return visit under my own steam with NAH so we can have a go at some of the activities I didn't have time to do. There's still time for you to do so too - it looks like tomorrow (Sunday 6th August) is the best day weatherwise and tickets are available online or on the door :)

Farm machinery for sale
No wonder there are contractors who hire themselves + harvesting machinery out to farmers

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Plants for butterflies

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on valerian
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on valerian (Centranthus ruber)  

I'm grateful to the company that offered me an expensive designer butterfly feeder recently because it led me to review how many butterfly friendly plants I could grow in my garden for the same money. The answer is loads and I'm happy to say not only do I have most of them already, they also feed a wider range of these delightful visitors.

It was also a timely reminder to grab a cup of coffee and spend a relaxing 15 minutes in the garden counting butterflies for this year's Big Butterfly Count, which runs until this Sunday (6th August 2017).

For this year's count, I paid particular attention to which plants were in the butterflies' favour. They were:

  • Perennial cornflower, Centaurea montana
  • Globe thistle, Echinops ritro
  • Perennial wallflower, Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'
  • Phlox paniculata (they seem to prefer the white over the pink flowers)
  • Ice plant, Sedum spectabile (NB now renamed as Hylotelephium spectabile)
  • Verbena bonariensis

We'll draw a veil over the various white butterflies which have a liking for the nasturtiums up at my allotment. As NAH doesn't like brassicas, these are the only option for them on my plot.

Butterfly Conservation has a useful page about gardening for butterflies which shows their top plants for summer nectar - buddleia, Verbena bonarienis, Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', lavender and marjoram. This page links to a much longer, downloadable list so you can ensure your garden is attractive to butterflies from March right through to November. There's also a downloadable list of the key food plants for caterpillars.

Which plants do your butterfly visitors prefer?

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Garden Bloggers' Muse Day: The Rose

Imagine the scene... you're visiting a garden which in the 16th century was home to France's most famous poet, who was a gardener who loved roses and also wrote about them.

You pass by a sheltered courtyard where the first roses of the season are in full bloom, then jump out of your skin as a deep disembodied voice starts intoning in French the poem shown above.

It was a magical moment at Saint-Cosme Priory in May, and seeing I have red roses in bloom in my garden today, the poem has a timely quotation for Muse Day. You can read the full poem here.

I wrote more about this garden for the Guardian recently, along with another favourite from my recent visit to France, the Abbey of Saint-George de Boscherville.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Seasonal Recipe: Garlic Powder

Garlic powder and bits
The finished product: there are always some larger pieces which refuse to grind down to a fine dust
Garlic is one of my favourite crops to grow because it's so simple and you can easily save some cloves for next year. We use quite a lot of it every week, which makes garlic a must-have for my plot.

However, last year I was rather puzzled to find my harvest wasn't disappearing quite as quickly as expected. Some time later I found the solution to the mystery in our spice cupboard: a jar of garlic powder stood proudly in prime position on the top shelf.

It turns out NAH prefers using the powdered form because it's less fiddly and so quick to use. To say I was a bit cross when I tackled him about it is putting it mildly as I felt all my hard work up at the allotment was being rejected. Later when I'd calmed down and could put myself in 'my customer's shoes' I resolved to have a go at making my own garlic powder.

We both use the green garlic I grow which uses up the smaller cloves from a cropping garlic bulb. It starts the home grown garlic season much earlier and still fits NAH's easy to use criteria. These always yield a small bulb at the end of the green garlic season, so I used these to experiment with last week. My bulk harvest is still a few weeks away yet.

The amount you need isn't fixed, so make as much or as little as you want according to what you have. Make sure the cloves are well dried first, then we'll go straight to the Method...

Garlic pieces being cooked in the oven
My garlic pieces after a couple of hours in the oven

  1. Peel the garlic cloves and compost the peelings
  2. Crush the cloves in a food mixer or blender until you have the smallest pieces possible. Do this in small batches if you have a lot of garlic to process
  3. Spread the small garlic pieces out evenly on oven-proof nonstick trays and place in an cool oven (90°C for a fan assisted oven, 110°C conventional, or Gas Mark ¼). Alternatively use a dehydrator if you have one - cover the trays with greaseproof paper or parchment so the garlic doesn't stick to them
  4. Open all outside doors and windows and close the kitchen door to minimise the garlic smell entering the house and lingering for several days - though NAH liked the smell and it does subside after a couple of hours or so (optional)
  5. Heat the garlic through until fully dried - approx 6-8 hours. Give the trays a shake every hour or so to check on progress and help the process along
  6. Once cooled, grind the garlic (in batches if needed) using a food processor or stick blender until a fine powder is formed for around half the garlic
  7. Taking care not to breathe in any of the fine dust (I didn't and had a quite a coughing session as a result), carefully transfer to jar(s) - a funnel helps to prevent spillage
  8. Make sure each jar lid is screwed on tightly and store in a cupboard 
You'll find the powder is much stronger in taste than shop bought and can be stored for a couple of years.

NAH pointed out this is quite a fiddly and expensive way to make garlic powder. I'd say making a huge batch and the better taste of the final result just about makes it worthwhile.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Summer Showcase

Tower planters at Ball Colegrave
A cheeky welcome awaits visitors from Begonia 'Dragon Wing'  

Regular readers know I'm a sucker for plant trials - my own and other people's - so won't be surprised that at last I've managed to get over to Ball Colegrave's Summer Showcase. This event is aimed at professional horticulturists and the retail trade and shows off more than 50,000 plants at its grounds in Oxfordshire every July. Even on a dull grey day after last week's thunderstorms they made for an eye popping display.

Part of the huge Ball Colegrave site

As well as the chance to see hundreds of annuals and perennials - some completely new to the market - I also enjoyed the opportunity to talk to horticulturists from a wide variety of backgrounds, from nurserymen and local authority gardeners through to fellow garden writers and university gardeners, as well as Ball Colegrave's staff.

The trials beds
Some of the trials beds

One of my most interesting discussions was with a couple of gardeners from South Gloucestershire council who were seriously considering the merits of the Phygelius plants in one of the experimental beds. I'd dismissed these as thugs from my experience of growing them in the early days of VP Gardens, but it was that quality plus their long season of colour which made them an attractive proposition for public planting.

Even on a dull, coolish day these flower beds were alive with bees
Whether dwarf cultivars of usually tall plants like Monarda are OK was a cause for debate on the day

We discussed the need to transition to a perennial 'plant and forget if possible' approach to municipal planting in these budget constrained times, though they also admitted the public still like and react most positively to the more traditional colourful annual bedding schemes.

They were also enjoying the 'kids in a sweetshop' effect of the Showcase, and were keen to home in their choices on 'multi-purpose' plants like the pictured Coreopsis 'Uptick', dwarf Monarda 'Balmy' and Salvia 'Lyrical'™ combinations. These were a riot of colour and were being dive bombed by a multitude of honey and bumble bees.

The dahlia section in one of the greenhouses

There was plenty of space undercover and I was happy to look in the greenhouses during a brief shower.

Retail display and pot planter ideas

There were lots of colour themed retail display ideas and suggestions for planting combinations using striking pots. It's worth arriving in time for the daily talk at 11am, where marketing manager Stuart Lowen highlights some of the new introductions for coming year.

Note that in this case 'new' can mean:

  • Completely new
  • An improved version of an old favourite
  • New colour options for an old favourite
  • Ball Colegrave has acquired the licence to grow and supply an established variety (possibly with improved genetics as well)

Here's one of the new introductions highlighted, a pink version of Petunia 'Night Sky' called 'BabyDoll'®. Somehow it doesn't do it for me like 'Night Sky' did last year, though I do tend to go more for blues and purples. It was clear from the people I spoke to there's a much wider variety of tastes and requirements to be catered for in addition to my own. From a retail perspective this variety apparently behaves better for growing on for sales.

A selection of flowers and foliage: spot the coleus, coreopsis, osteospermum, diascia, petunia, ipomoea and begonias
A small selection of the flowers and foliage that caught my eye

We were also invited to select one plant we thought particularly of note. The results of this vote are collated over the Summer Showcase season and announced once the show closes. This was quite hard to do as there were so many plants I liked. In the end I plumped for one of the 700 yet-to-be-named experimental varieties on show. I thought it was more worthwhile to highlight something in earlier development rather than a plant already deemed successful enough to be named ready for market.

Can you guess what I went for?

My selected favourite of the day, a single-bloomed, dark leaved dahlia

Yes, for me a single bloomed, dark-leafed dahlia is always going to be hard to beat. Let me introduce you to Dahlia Experimental (V2224).

I also found plenty of scope for my Great Green Wall Hunt in the shape of Ball Colegrave's VertiGarden product, but that's a story for another day...

Alpaca arrival
The arrival of several inquisitive alpacas ready for the one public open evening last Wednesday
"That spotted one is just like an IKEA carpet" has to be the overheard quote of the day ;)

Saturday, 22 July 2017

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #36

Tweet showing Chippenham in the Antiques Roadshow opening credits

  1. Decide to revamp the opening titles to Antiques Roadshow
  2. Use some of the artifacts owned by one of the show's experts
  3. Film close to said expert's home and in the surrounding area
  4. Wait for a blogger with a PrntScr key on their computer to notice a tweet about it
  5. Et voila!
I'd wondered for ages why the opening credits to the Antiques Roadshow looked familiar and finally twigged why on a recent WI treasure hunt around the town. NAH and I watched the opening credits closely the other day and we reckon one of the other locations used (when the garage door is opened) is either on our own estate, or our old one over at Pewsham.

As well as his involvement with the Antiques Roadshow, expert Marc Allum is trying to find the actual location of King Alfred's hunting lodge by hosting a regular archaeological dig in St Mary's Street. He got a little more than he bargained for recently when Roman remains were found in his garden instead. It even made some of the national newspapers, which is another great advert for the town.

Back to the Roadshow, here are the opening credits in full - we need to find out where the other locations are.

If the embedded video doesn't work try this link instead.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Simple Summer Pots

A huge blue pot and Heuchera
A huge pot plus a large-leaved Heuchera makes a striking statement in Linda Hostetler's Viginian garden

I've always been struck by the bold use of pots at the gardens visited on previous Garden Bloggers' Flings and this year was another visual feast. The planting combinations are varied and exceptional, often using plants - such as coleus - I've dismissed previously as not my 'thing'.

Unlike some Fling bloggers*, I have only a few photos to show what I've liked and learned from this year's trip. Instead, I've realised sights like the one above have influenced the simple summer pots I've put together since I got back.

Large trough with three coleus

I've started on a makeover of my front garden and one of the tiny baby steps along that path is to replace the multitude of small pots on the ugly telephone junction box at the very front. I don't usually go for plastic with my pots, but I found this one more attractive to usual. Besides, I need to keep things relatively light in case the telephone engineers need access.

I've planted 3 coleus plectranthus which will fill out and engulf the pot in a few weeks time. I thought about using just one colourway, but I liked the contrast of the middle plant when I put it with the others at the garden centre. I hope these will flower like those I saw in the States, as the spikes also look attractive.

Alpine planter filled with around 100 allium seed heads

This arrangement came together by accident when I was tidying up the garden at the weekend. I was cutting back some of my spent alliums ready for shredding and needed to put the flower heads into something as I worked so they didn't seed themselves everywhere. The pictured pot was to hand, and I liked the look of the few heads in there so much, I decided to put in the whole lot to make a temporary display. There are around 100 of them in there.

I love the way the individual stalks of the flower heads tremble in the breeze a bit like some deely boppers do, which adds another dimension to this pot. What do you think?

My final example is the hanging basket by the front door. I usually stuff this with scented petunias like the striking 'Night Sky' I trialled last year. Sadly, my seedlings got some kind of rot and then I couldn't resist the pictured trailing begonia instead when I went to buy their replacements (full name = Begonia boliviensis 'Bossa Nova White').

This is another planter which has still to reach its full potential. Watch this space for a progress report...

I'm sure huge pots with lots of bold plants - even an obelisk or two - like these I found in downtown Charlottesville - will feature in my garden's future in some way. Until then, I'm enjoying the simple summer pots I've put together for this year.

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Disclosure: I was given the two planters featured in this post by Stewart. They're not being used in the way I'd originally envisaged, but I'm glad they're doing the job I eventually gave them.
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