A spectacular year for Lupins

The weather this spring in the UK (2021) has been quite extreme at times. April was a very dry month followed by a very wet and sometimes cold May. Now in June we are back to humid heat with little rain but there is still plenty of moisture in the ground. All this has resulted in a huge explosion of growth right across the garden.

We have grown Lupins for many years but I have been struck this year but the sheer size and exuberance of the plants we have around the garden. The top picture shows the brick red ‘My Castle’ in the foreground with the yellow ‘Chandelier’ and white ‘Noble Maiden’ behind. All of this is nicely framed by another member of the pea family, the Wisteria.

The white lupin ‘Nobel Maiden’ set amongst aquilegia and geum and a yellow dutch iris. I have left the garden tools to show the sheer size of these perennials this year.

Many of the lupins we have around the garden are Russell Hybrids from the ‘Band of Nobles’ series. The species Lupinus polyphyllus is a native of western North America. It commonly grows wild along streams and creeks and prefers a moist habitat 1.

In the background is Lupin ‘The Governor’ which sits well with these scrumptious deep mauve lupins in the foreground (name long forgotten!)

Lupinus polyphyllus was originally introduced into the United Kingdom by David Douglas in the 1820’s (2) . A century later George Russell started to develop the Russell hybrids with the aim of creating flower spikes that we denser, larger and more colourful than the original species. These were first displayed to the public at the RHS show in 1937 and have been a popular garden favourite ever since.

In the background is the red Lupin ‘My Castle’ set behind Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and pink Persicaria bistorta. Just emerging amongst the red lupins you can see the apricot foxgloves which create a striking contrast with the brick red lupins.

Over the last few years we have been developing our collection by growing from seed. It has proved to be a very successful way of growing a significant number of sturdy plants at little cost. In general we have sown the seeds in spring, potted up and grown on for about 12 months before planting out in the flower garden. The bigger the potted plant the quicker they seem to establish in the wilds of the flower garden where they have to compete with neighbouring plants and fend off the slugs. Most of the plants in these pictures are probably now three or four years old.

I particularly like lupins when they are planted in groups to make a strong vertical statement in a large bed. The range of colours is very wide and this allows you to mix and compliment these plants with a wide range of other border perennials.

Lupin ‘The Governor’
Lupin ‘Chandelier’
Lupin ‘My Castle’

Mid-season Tulips 2021 – mid April to early May

Each year we try to extend the period of tulips in the garden by choosing a range of varieties that start flowering in late March and continue the show right through to late May. I reported in April on this year’s early tulips and now it is time to look at the successes and failures of the mid-season varieties – and there have certainly been both!

It has been a strange year so far with a very dry April followed now by a very wet May. The other problem has been that some of the varieties we ordered have proved to be the wrong thing and this has certainly upset the colour combinations and mixes that we had hoped to create.

One specific problem that we had was with a mass of bulbs that were supposed to be Menton Exotic. Menton Exotic is a peachy pink, double variety but what emerged to our horror were these bright yellow/orange blooms of a similar structure but very different colour.

We were given a complete refund but having nurtured them all winter protecting them from the mice, voles and squirrels they were a bit of a disappointment. In the right place, mixed with an appropriate mix of other shades they would have been lovely and we have in fact now grown to enjoy them after the initial shock. I have no idea what variety they are.

One of the real successes of this year was the variety Tulip ‘Lasting Love’. It is such a sumptuous colour and was a real pleasure to have in the garden. It has proved to be long lasting and well behaved despite the heavy rains of May this year.

Tulip ‘Lasting Love’ (photographed on 16 April 2021)

‘Lasting Love’ works extremely well when backed with evergreen grey foliage. Here it is set off by a new Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Ball’ which we planted last summer when we totally renovated this particular bed to make a ‘moon garden‘. As an aside we have been very pleased with how this Pittosporum variety has kept its shape and colour during the winter and is it growing away well again this spring.

A second combination that has worked well for us this year is ‘Havran’ and ‘Slawa’. Both tulips flowered together (sometimes a problem when you try new combinations) and were of a similar height and temperament. They were fresh and tidy for a long period and stood up well to the very strong winds and rain we had at one time.

Tulip varieties ‘Havran’ and ‘Slawa’ (photographed on 27 April 2021)

In previous years we lost a lot of bulbs to the squirrels and mice when we planted them directly in the ground in November. This year we decided to grow more in large containers and protect them with a narrow gauge, strong wire mesh. This has worked really well and we have lost very few this year. Certainly something we will do again I think.

Amelanchier lamarckii – a small tree with a big presence

One of my favourite moments of spring has to be the flowering of Amelanchier lamarckii on the edge of the orchard. It is admittedly rather fleeting, flowering for a couple of weeks at most, but it is an absolute delight.

Originally from eastern Canada it was probably brought over to France in the second half of the nineteenth century but is now widespread across Europe in both gardens and in the wild 1 . It is also known as juneberry, serviceberry and snowy mespilus.

It is a small to medium sized tree with a light, open habit. In spring the fresh young leaves are an unusual mix of bronze and green shades which create a striking background to the white, star shaped flowers. Later in the year this plant also provides good red autumn colour as the leaves prepare to fall.

Our tree sits on the edge of the orchard on the north side of a mixed shrubbery. It seems to require very little maintenance and returns to please without fail year after year. These pictures were all taken on 16th April 2021 when it was in its full glory. Rather conveniently it flowers at the same time as the yellow Berberis darwinii and I think the combination works really well together.

In my view no garden should be without this very special tree.

1 CABI Invasive species compendium

Narcissus jonquilla ‘Intrigue’

I am definitely a lover of spring daffodils in the garden but I don’t think we have grown Jonquil daffodils before. Narcissus jonquilla ‘Intrigue’ really is a delightful addition.

It is a very tidy, multi-headed daffodil with a light and sweet scent growing to about 30cm high. It seems to have flowered slightly later than the bulk of the other daffodils in the garden but before the pheasant eyes. Whereas the others are now going over and need dead heading, this variety is new and fresh and, as stated in the catalogues, flowers from April through May.

When it started to bloom around the 16 April 2021 the flowers were all yellow (see below).

Ten days later on 27th April the expected white cup had developed creating a striking and delicate bloom.

Because it flowers slightly later (in what I consider to be ‘tulip time’ rather than daffodil time) it has rather pleasingly combined with the blue iris that we have in the same bed making a lovely combination at the front of the house.

In the wild Narcissus jonquilla come from central and southern Spain and southern and eastern Portugal where it grows in damp meadows and along river banks 1 . Our soil is generally very wet in the winter and can bake hard in the summer so only time will tell whether they will settle in and thrive. They are such a lovely find and I really hope that they do.

1 ‘Bulbs’ by Anna Pavord (ISBN 978-1-84533-415-4)

Bulbs purchased from J. Parkers at (dutchbulbs.co.uk)

Five early tulip varieties performing at their best right now

Although the daffodils are still providing colour in the garden they are definitely beginning to go over now. The next bulbs to perform will be the tulips and the first early tulips are now coming into their own. Here are five early tulip varieties that are in their prime in our garden at the moment (9 April 2021).


Tulip Van Eijk Mixed

Van Eijk Mixed provides a sumptuous array of colour. The flowers sit on strong sturdy stems that have held up well against the strong winds we have had at times this spring. They are looking particularly nice against the emerging red foliage of the roses.


Tulip Haute Couture

This is a short stocky tulip that seems to work very well in pots by the front door where you can look down on them. The powdery yellow is very attractive and the flowers sits neatly amongst these interesting mottled leaves.


Tulip Apeldoorn

Most tulips do not seem to be perennial in our garden and we tend to replant new bulbs each year. Apeldoorn is an exception however and these seem to return each year in the relatively dry conditions under our rose arches. They are very attractive planted amongst white multi-headed Thalia narcissus


Tulips Pink Prince and Flaming Prince

We have planted these two varieties together in six terracotta pots on the front steps down towards the lane. They make a great entrance for visitors (lockdown permitting) as they come up the steep steps with the blooms set against the grey foliage at eye level.

Spring Equinox – a time to take stock

At this time of year it is the little things that you notice. Across the garden it is at times a bit like meeting up with old friends. Many of the bulbs, flowers, shrubs and trees have been in the garden for years yet many have remained hidden or quietly green all summer and winter. Now is their time to shine.

At the same time you have a raft of new arrivals that you planted at the end of last year that you hope have survived the cold, wet winter months. There is a quiet thrill of excitement when you see the first signs of growth breaking through the soil and the first leaves or blossom breaking.

Last Saturday (20 March) was the Spring Equinox here in the northern hemisphere. From now on the days will be longer than the nights, it is the official start of spring and summer is around the corner

To be honest for us the gardening year started sometime ago and the greenhouse, polytunnel, windowsills and dining room are already full of plants and seedlings.

However, the start of spring is a great time to stop and take stock of the beauty in the garden. The first of the pink cherry blossom is particularly pretty at the moment. Over the last couple of years we have been removing a rather thuggish Clematis montana from this tree and it has certainly responded this year with a beautiful show of delicate flowers.

Red leaved Prunus cerasifera
Prunus incisa ‘Paean’

Less successful this year have been the hellebores. Usually they are pretty fool proof providing a wonderful early spring show of colour. This year, for what ever reason, they have all looked very sad. Whether they were hit by a sudden cold spell at a critical time we don’t know but hopefully they will return with gusto next year.

Around the woodland edges there are a number of old favourites that bring a smile to my face as I do the morning tour with my springer spaniel. A simple clump of primroses, a cluster of miniture narsiccus, the small white flowers of the wood anemone Anemone nemorosa, the blues of Anemone blanda and a white Pulmonia ‘Bressingham White’ are all emerging again this year on schedule.

The beautiful simplicity of native primroses
Anemone nemorosa (Wood Anemone)

One of my favourite views at this time of year is the view across the orchard. The smell of the first cut of the orchard grass alone is wonderful and daffodils around the base of the apple trees shine out in the spring sunshine.

Over the last few years we have had an ongoing battle with the squirrels and voles who seemed to be intent on eating all our tulip bulbs. This year we have tried a different tack focusing our efforts on planting tulips in large pots and containers rather than in the ground. We invested in some fine metal mesh which we secured over all of the pots and it seems to have worked a treat. We have lost very few and hopefully now they are up we will be enjoying a great show in the next few months. The strong mesh, although not cheap, will also last us for many years and should be a sound investment.

Few tulips seem to last from one year to the next in our soil but we have had success with our very earliest kaufmanniana tulips. Variety ‘Ice Stick’ seems to be particularly successful and is the start of a long tulip season that will continue from now well into May.

Kaufmanniana tulip ‘Ice Stick’

There really are so many small and delicate little flowers emerging around the garden including Puschkinia and Chionodoxa to name but a few. The latter get their chance to flower before the grass at the base of the hedgerows starts to get going. We have found that the delicate light blue of Puschkinia sits beautifully with the darker blue of grape hyacinths and makes an attractive combination.

It wouldn’t be fair however to finish without a mention of the humble pansy. Planted before Christmas they look rather uninspiring for most of the winter but now they have come into their own.

Small but perfectly formed – Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica

I have written earlier about tough little plants that herald in the new year by flowering in the early spring. Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica is new to us but it is certainly one that I would now add to the list.

There is no doubt that it is tiny (probably just a couple of inches in our garden in Warwickshire at the moment) but it emerged and started flowering in mid-February and is still in full flower (March 8). The flowers and foliage come through together and it certainly needs a place to itself in the garden where it will not be crowded by bigger neighbours. Given space however it is absolutely charming.

Each plant has two leaves that sit either side of a single flower stem with 6 to 10 starry flowers. The white flowers have a delicate blue line down each petal with yellow stamens in the centre. They are members of the family Hyacinthaceae and have a similar appearance to scilla.

Puschkinia originate from Turkey and Lebanon where they grow in grasslands made damp by melting snow at 1900-3700m. They are happy in sun or light shade and should be planted 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart (1).

They certainly appear to be fully hardy having made it through a cold, wet winter here in the UK Midlands. The planting recommendation is that they do not like the ground to get too dry. As we have not grown them before we planted them in two different places in the garden to see where they would fair best.

The first group is in a bed in the flower garden that is in part shade and gets quite wet and boggy in the winter however stays moist all summer. Secondly we planted them in an area in full sun that is much better drained however remains wet all winter but is much drier in the summer. Time will tell where they will naturalise best but it is rather satisfying to report that at the moment both sets have survived the winter and are flowering well.

(1) “Bulb” by Anna Pavord (ISBN 978 1 84533 415 4)

Ageratum houstonianum – a plant with a secret defence mechanism

We have grown Ageratum houstonianum, the Mexican Paintbrush, for a number of years now. Originally we knew Ageratum as one of those short carpet bedding plants that you would see alongside red salvias and orange marigolds in council bedding schemes in the local park.

Some ten years ago we started up Honey Pot Flowers and were trying out new varieties to grow and include in our summer bouquets of British country flowers. We were introduced to the F1 variety ‘Blue Horizon’ which produces flowers on much longer, robust stems and holds extremely well as a cut flower. We have been growing it ever since.

This variety of Ageratum has large, dense flower heads of powder blue. It is not a colour that you find very often in the garden and so makes an interesting addition to both the flower borders and cut flower arrangements. Most importantly, once established it does seem to be a very well behaved plant, growing and flowering reliably throughout the summer.

It is a native of Central America and Mexico and it is worth noting that in some countries it is considered an invasive weed. We have certainly not found this to be a problem here in the UK climate.

I have just sown this year’s seeds (14th February). The tiny seeds are surface sown on a half tray of pre-watered, well drained multi-purpose compost. To ensure the seedlings do not damp off in their early days we mix the compost with a generous amount of perlite. I like to water the compost before sowing so that the tiny seeds do not get washed into the corner.

The half tray is covered with cling film to remove the need for any extra watering before the seedlings emerge. They will sit on a warmish kitchen windowsill now for a few weeks until the green shoots appear at which point we will slowly loosen the cover and acclimatise the small plants before removing the cling film altogether.

Looking at previous years’ records I will be pricking these out into larger trays in about five weeks time (towards the end of March), and will have planted them out into the garden by 6th May. They are not frost hardy so this would need to be adjusted to suit your own circumstances.

Our past records also indicate that we have been picking Ageratum for cutting by mid-June and they then continue to flower right through to the first frosts in the Autumn.

Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’ arranged together with Phlox, Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’, Liatris and pink Clary Sage

Over the years we have tried them in various parts of the garden but they do seem to grow best in full sun in soil that remains moist all the summer. Our garden soil can dry out rapidly in the height of the summer but there are areas in part shade that retain some moisture in the soil. The Ageratum also seem to thrive in these areas.

What we particularly like about Ageratum is how trouble free it is. It does not seem to be attacked by pests which is ideal if you want to grow good quality, clean stems for cutting, arranging and/or selling. In researching the plant this year I was surprised to find that it has its own secret defence mechanisms when it comes to fending off insects.

Ageratum has evolved a method of protecting itself from insects by producing a compound that interferes with the insect organ responsible for secreting juvenile hormone during growth and development. The chemical triggers the next moulting cycle prematurely and renders most insects sterile. Fascinating stuff!

Small blue and white arrangement combining Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’, chincherinchee and scabious seed heads

The joy of making petal confetti

Over the last year we have been having fun preparing for the marriage of our daughter. The plan is to have a large informal country wedding out in the garden amongst the flowers and trees. Alas, one or two pandemic issues have got in the way but the preparation continues for a rescheduled wedding in 2021.

In many respects the delay last year has allowed us to try a few things out in the garden. Some have worked, some have been less successful and in this new year we will be able to build on the successes of this year’s planting combinations and ditch those that did not work.

With the pressure off somewhat we have been able to play a little. One of the most enjoyable and relaxing activities is to wander around the garden in the warm sunshine picking flowers to make petal confetti. It is so satisfying.

Along the way we have learnt some tricks which we thought it would be nice to pass on if you plan to do this yourself.

First of all you may need a large floppy hat and Sussex Trug to really feel the part! Choose a warm, dry day if possible and certainly wait until any dew has gone. The flowers that you choose to pick should be fully out and mature. Good quality blown roses are fine to use.

We collected petals in cardboard trays lined with kitchen paper. If possible you want to create a single layer so that they dry well. You certainly don’t want piles of petals or they will not dry successfully.

The trays of petals were slowly dried in the airing cupboard for 2 days. Once dried we placed the petals carefully and loosely into air tight storage jars (we re-purposed washed Douwe Egberts coffee jars). In each of the jars we put a home made sachet of silica gel created using unwanted, emptied herbal tea bags.

It is important to store the jars in the dark. As you can see from the pictures the petals have kept their colour well over the months. Although you cannot smell them they have also retained their wonderful scent if they had one originally.

We have labelled each picture so that you can see how the different types flowers have turned out.

Dark purple Rose
Deep pink rose
Pale pink Rose
White and yellow Rose
Geum
Dahlia David Howard
Crocosmia
Calendula
Pink Larkspur
Blue Larkspur

So what have we learnt along the way:

  • White flowers are less successful as the petals tend to dry an unattractive brown or dirty white.
  • Many of the dark red flowers turned almost black and lost their attractive colour.
  • Very fleshy petals (eg. hemerocallis) don’t seem to dry well.

We have also been advised that taking good wedding day photographs of confetti throwing takes some practice so we had a really fun afternoon in the summer throwing petals and taking some pictures. Timing the release of your treasured petals is everything and unfortunately some of your guests may not be up to the task on the day – but that is half the fun.

Finally we think we should offer a word of warning for the big day. Some darker coloured petals will stain if moistened so we suggest you don’t throw these at the bride in her beautiful dress if the weather is at all damp!

Almost like a fairy tale

The garden and surrounding countryside have suddenly been cloaked in ice crystals this week. Due to a third national lockdown our single track lane is free of cars and most people are keeping warm indoors by their house fires.

It is all really rather beautiful and looks as if an ice wand has been waved across the trees and put the whole garden to sleep. Here are my Six on Saturday for this week which try and capture the feeling of the moment.

Happy New Year everyone!

One: Heuchera with violas
Two: Himalayan Fairy Grass
Three: A winter rose bud
Four: Rose leaves
Five: Ornamental cabbages
Six: Sedum

This post is a contribution to the Six on Saturday meme which is hosted by The Propagator. Click on the link to be inspired by what other garden lovers are enjoying this weekend.