Saturday, 28 February 2015

Early flowering bulbs

When snowdrops begin to appear in the garden it makes me feel that spring isn't far away, and I start to get excited about the gardening year ahead.
Galanthus nivalis

We have a small drift of Galanthus nivalis, the common single snowdrop, around the birch trees (to make us go into the garden to enjoy their luminous quality in the woodland bed) and they are spread throughout the wildflower bed (so that we can enjoy them from a seat at the kitchen table).
Snowdrops under the birch trees

I had a moment recently, while looking through the vast selection of snowdrops available in a specialist catalogue, when I felt that I could become a galanthophile (a snowdropaholic). Pete scoffed at the idea of collecting different snowdrops until I showed him a photo of one with beautiful green markings on the outer petals - he was momentarily seduced until I pointed out the price tag! We have decided to stick with the common ones for the moment.
Snowdrops in the wildflower bed under the apple tree

Shortly after the snowdrops, the sunny flowers of Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite) start to open. I know that many people don't like yellow flowers, but after a long winter I look forward to their cheery faces surrounded by ruffled collars of leaves. After the flowers fade the leaves grow slightly larger and give a bit of green to bare borders until later-emerging plants take over.
Eranthis hyemalis

I find that both snowdrops and winter aconites are best planted 'in the green', which means that the bulbs have finished flowering but the foliage has not yet died back. Now is the perfect time to order them in the green. I find that it is much easier to plant them now when the borders are quite bare, and they are easier to handle with the leaves attached. I plant snowdrops in groups of 8-10, and winter aconites in groups of 3 or 5. Winter aconites might take a year to establish before flowering.
Eranthis hyemalis under Magnolia Loenard Messel

We also have several types of crocus and miniature iris in the garden. They don't flower for as long as the snowdrops and winter aconites, and they do seem to be more susceptible to weather damage (or being flattened by a chicken), but they are generally cheap to buy in autumn as dry bulbs and in my view the colour and variety that they bring to the garden at this time of year is worthwhile.
Iris Katherine Hodgkin

Crocus tommasinianus whitewell purple

Crocus chrysanthus gypsy girl

Crocus tommasinianus and snowdrops in the wildflower bed

With all of these small bulbs I recommend that you plant far more than you think will be necessary! I originally planted 100 snowdrop bulbs around the birch trees, but was disappointed with the display. I know that they will multiply over the years, but being impatient I have now planted 300 and feel that it now resembles a drift.
The drift of snowdrops around the birch trees

Also of interest in the garden at the moment - the strange fruit of Holboellia coriacea (sausage vine), which is four inches long. This evergreen climber took four years to flower, but the incredibly strong perfume that it produces from its small flowers was worth the wait.
The fruit of Holboellia coriacea (sausage vine)

Our current to-do list

1. Dig up more lawn - Every year we reduce the size of the lawn to increase the size of the flower beds. Every year we say that it is the last time, but every winter we look out at the garden for several weeks and always conclude that more grass needs to go. We have already completed the fifth bog extension and reshaped the border around the chicken run. As soon as the rain stops we will be increasing the width of the left-hand border. We use a long, thick rope to mark out the new edge, leaving it there for days or weeks and tweaking it until we are happy with the shape from all angles. We then use a half-moon edging tool to cut along the outside edge of the rope.

2. Prune the Cornus (dogwood) and Sambucas (elder) - Even though the red cornus stems still look lovely, it's time to cut at least half of the old stems to the ground. The Sambucas obscures the view across the garden from the outdoor lounge if its grows too tall, so Pete gives it a hard cut back every year.

3. Cut back epimediums - as soon as I see signs of new growth I cut back the old leaves to ground level. This means that you can see the new flowers properly and can enjoy the fresh colours of the new foliage. It also avoids accidental decapitation of the new flowers, which is hard to avoid if you leave it till later.

4. Cut back ferns - I probably do this a little later than the epimediums, but as soon as I can see new fronds emerging, I cut off all the old leaves. This seems harsh for evergreens, but it enables you to really appreciate the lovely unfurling of the new fronds.

5. Dividing summer-flowering perennials - we have a few plants that have outgrown their allotted space, or have developed hollow centers with new growth around the outside of the clump. Whenever the weather is nice enough we are digging them up and splitting them into smaller clumps using two garden forks back-to-back. We put a clump of new growth back into the border, and pot up smaller sections for sale at our NGS opening in May.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Foliage for winter interest

It would be wonderful to have a dedicated winter garden, but shrubs such as Cornus, Rubus and Hamemelis take a lot of space, and to be honest I find them to be pretty dull for the rest of the year. We don't have a huge garden, so every plant needs to earn its space and provide interest for more than one season. I also don't want to look at bare earth - so what to do?

We have a variety of low-growing foliage plants that add colour and interest to the borders now, but allow later plants to emerge around them.

Pachysandra terminalis variegata, a low-growing evergreen suitable for shade

We were very lucky to inherit large numbers of autumn-flowering cyclamen. I would never have thought to buy this plant, but having seen how beautiful and useful it is I would definitely recommend it. Its flowers are lovely in late summer, but the real bonus is the mounds of mottled foliage that remain looking fresh all winter. It dies back completely in late spring/early summer, allowing emerging summer-flowering plants to take over. It seems to grow in any aspect, and doesn't mind being moved about or jostling for space with other plants. Cyclamen also seed themselves about freely - what more could you want!
Autumn-flowering cyclamen and a yellow Tiarella

It might be common as muck, but for me Sarcococca confusa (Christmas box) is a must-have plant. Ours is located so that on each visit to the chickens we can enjoy the amazing perfume. It is a very compact shrub and its dark green leaves make a good backdrop for other plants.

Sarcococca confusa

The grassy leaves of Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens and Luzula hohe tatra stand out now because of their dramatic colours. Both are evergreen and are fantastic edging plants all year round, and can be used to create dramatic colour contrasts with other foliage or flowers. They seem happy in sun or shade and clump-up quite quickly. 

Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens

Luzula hohe tatra

Our favourite foliage plant, and one that keeps us going out in the garden to enjoy it, is Meconopsis paniculata/napaulensis. The rosettes look particularly stunning covered in rain droplets. These plants are monocarpic, so once they have flowered, which takes two or three years, the plant sets seed and dies, but they are well worth growing for the stunning, evergreen foliage.
Meconopsis - with a silver leaf

Meconopsis - with a gold leaf

Meconopsis in flower

We also have a green backdrop on the fences surrounding the garden. We grow evergreen Lonicera (honeysuckle) mint crisp for its zesty foliage rather than for its summer flowers.
Honeysuckle mint crisp

Variegated ivy, which might seem a bit brash in summer, bring welcome cheer in winter. We densely plant our climbers (as we do in the whole garden!) so in spring and summer roses and clematis take over. 
Hedera green ripples

Small-leaved white variegated ivy and autumn-flowering cyclamen leaves

Hedera sulphur heart with large glossy leaves