In spite of the rather uninspiring grey (but mild) weather after Christmas we have been out and about in the garden cutting back and pruning ready for spring. We have just about finished the winter pruning of the orchard, made much easier this year by the purchase of a new Niwaki tripod ladder. Just the clearing up and shredding of the resulting pile of prunings is left to be completed.
Winter is not devoid of flowers and many of the shrubs in bloom at this time of year give off a strong fragrance to attract the few pollinating insects that are out and about. In January you get the chance to stop and appreciate the few plants that are braving the weather. Many are exquisite and well worth a closer look.
Here are my six for this week.
This small evergreen shrub, a native of western china, is producing a lovely honey scent that hangs in the air around the patio by the kitchen.
Again in full bloom at the moment, this slow growing shrub was originally a rooted sucker that we obtained from a relative in Cornwall. It is now establishing well and flowers profusely every year giving a wonderful fragrance in the winter months. Many of the plants we have collected together over the years remind us of friends and family, holidays and special garden visits. A subject of a blog in its own right perhaps.
We really associate snowdrops with February in our garden but the first few that emerge are a real pleasure and herald the beginning of the new year. They are such charming, perfectly formed flowers. See last year’s more in-depth blog on snowdrops for more background and their associated folk-lore.
Winter flowering cherry
A number of the trees around the garden mark certain events. This particular tree was planted in memory of our very first German Shepherd Dog, Lenka. It is a lovely reminder of her each spring.
Just budding up and starting to emerge throughout the garden are our hellebores. We love them and they seem to love it here in the garden. We are quite happy to see them seeding new plants all over the garden and never quite know what hybrids and colours are likely to result. (See last years blog for more background)
Viburnum x bodnantense
Another highly reliably plant that flowers consistently year after year in the winter months and produces a lovely scent. Yet another hardwood cutting from someone’s garden over 20 years ago (Carol and I can’t recall quite where it came from but thank you anyway if it was you!). This now substantial shrub (nearly 8 feet in height) is situated just near the path and we enjoy its fragrance whenever we walk out into the garden at this time of year.
I know we are not yet far into 2019 but this has to be my purchase of the year so far. It is excellent and has made the pruning of the large established orchard so much easier this year.
The Niwaki Japanese Tripod Ladder (available from www.niwaki.com) is a light weight, free standing, aluminium ladder. They come in a range of sizes but the one that I plumped for is the 8 foot ladder which I have found perfect for the winter pruning of the orchard this year.
In previous years I have had to climb up inside the big apple trees to get to the very top and it has always been a difficult and rather precarious activity reaching large, high branches on the edge of the canopy of the larger trees.
I treated myself to this ladder after Christmas and it has been a revelation. I have found it to be a very stable ladder and the tripod leg allows you to work very comfortably in positions around the canopy where there is nothing to lean a normal ladder onto.
The tripod leg itself is easily adjustable and so even if you are working on a slight slope you can maintain the 75 degree angle required for safe working.
The safe working height of the ladder is three rungs from the top and this gives you a lot of support on the front of your body when you are working two-handed with loppers. On my 8 foot ladder your feet are three rungs from the top at around 5 feet. With your own body height (in my case 5ft 6inches) you are working very comfortably with secateurs or pruning saw at 9-10 feet and able to reach up to 12 feet with extended loppers.
If you are working on ladders for long periods of time, many traditional aluminium ladders only have a single narrow rung and this can be very tiring on the feet after a few hours. The Niwaki ladder has a double bar which gives much more support.
I would highly recommend these ladders. They are stable, light to move around and allow you to work safely and in comfort for many hours. I am very pleased with my purchase. The website is very informative about the height options available and safe working practices and well worth a look.
With the Christmas and New year festivities behind us our thoughts are turning to the new gardening year. Sowing sweet peas just after Christmas has become a bit of a tradition and makes you feel that the new year has begun even though the January weather is cold and uninviting.
This year we have decided to create two themes using the following varieties (all available from Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (www.rpsweetpeas.com)). For us a sweet pea must have a good scent to be worth growing. We also look for varieties that have a longer flower stem so that they sit well amongst other cottage garden flowers when brought into the house.
Details on how we sow our sweet peas and bring on our plants are also included below.
Pink, red and white selection
Emily (tall grandiflora type – rose pink on a white ground)
Millennium (tall spencer type – crimson)
Zorija Rose (tall grandiflora type – deep rose shades)
Hannah Dale (tall early grandiflora type – purple maroon)
Mollie Rilstone (tall spencer type – cream with a pink edge)
CCC (tall grandiflora type – white)
Blue and white collection
Blue Danube (tall spencer type – mid-blue)
Just Jenny (tall spencer type – navy blue)
King Size Navy Blue (tall semi-grandiflora type – navy blue)
Greenfingers (tall grandiflora type – cream with a violet edge)
Adorabel (tall grandiflora type – lavender turning mauve blue)
Dragonfly (tall semi-grandiflora type – cream marked with lavender)
CCC (tall grandiflora type – white)
Sowing and growing sweet peas
There seems to be a lot of mystique around sowing sweet peas but we have always found them very easy to grow and need no specialist equipment or seed treatment. Although in the past we have soaked the seed overnight before sowing we have not found this necessary to get good germination. Roger Parsons ( www.rpsweetpeas.com ) indicates that soaking or chipping the seed may in fact reduce germination.
We certainly have good success with the following approach:
Sow 3 or 4 seeds in January in standard 9cm pots in a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite.
Water well and place on the kitchen window sill (this is usually around a constant 18°C-20°C). Do not water again until the seedlings start to emerge.
You will typically see the first seedlings show themselves in about 7-14 days.
Once the seedlings have emerged we move them out into a cold, unheated greenhouse. They are best grown on hard in plenty of light so that they do not get leggy. If the temperature drops to below -5°C they may need some protection.
We keep the seedlings up high on the greenhouse staging so that there is less risk of mice and other rodents getting to them.
Once the plants have reached four leaves, pinch out the tops of all the plants so that they bush out.
In around mid-March, we harden off for a couple of weeks before planting out into the garden. We have grown them up canes in the past but this requires a lot of attention to ensure the plants are tied in effectively. More recently we have found that standard pea and bean netting works particularly well as long as you buy a decent quality that can be used again and again over a number of years.
You should create a deep well dug planting trench incorporating lots of well-rotted organic matter into the soil both to hold the moisture and feed the hungry plants through the season.
Plant out the whole pot of 3 or 4 plants together without disturbing the roots and water in well. Each pot should be planted around 12 inches apart and the tendrils gently encouraged to take a grip of the netting.
The final stage for us (if we don’t want to have wasted all our hard work) is to run chicken wire around the base of the row to keep the rabbits at bay.
All you need to do now is stand back and watch them grow making sure that you keep them regularly watered and fed with a liquid feed every couple of weeks once they are flowering. As soon as they start to flower pick them regularly (probably every day). The more you pick the more flowers you will get!
Campanulas are without doubt one of the most charming of cottage garden plants. The taller species typically grown in gardens provide heads of loose open bell-like flowers in blue, white, purple and sometimes pink. Some however have a low creeping habit and are very at home around the edge of a patio or tumbling over stones in a rockery.
There are over 500 species in the genera Campanula¹ and so it is going to be difficult to do the genus justice. I will concentrate here on those that we grow in the gardens at Waverley or have used as cut flowers over the years (C. medium, C. persicifolia, C. latifolia, C. glomerata, C. pyramidalis and C. portenschlagiana).
Campanulas mainly come from the temperate and sub-tropical regions of the northern hemisphere. Many are native to Europe originating in the Mediterranean and eastwards to the Caucasus mountains. Understanding where these plants come from and the conditions they enjoy in the wild, is critical to providing them with the conditions in which they will thrive in your own garden.
Some species of Campanula are annuals, whilst others are biennials or perennials. Although species like C. medium may be perennial in some areas we tend to grow them as biennials so that we get fresh vigorous flowering plants each year.
Sowing from seed is very straight forward. The seeds are very small and typically we would sow thinly onto the surface of moist compost in the spring and then cover the tray with cling film until the seeds germinate. I usually remove the cling film as soon as the green shoots emerge to avoid any danger of damping off. Try to avoid watering from the top as the seeds will easily be washed into the corner of your tray.
Once the seedlings have their first true leaves they can be pricked out into larger trays or modules and grown on. They seem to transplant very successfully. As we grow species like C. medium as biennials we prick them out into large modules where they stay until mid-September. At this point the established plants are very easy to set out in groups around the garden where they over winter and flower in early summer.
The hardy perennial species eg. C. persicifolia are perhaps easier to propagate by division every few years. I simply dig up a clump, separate out the new rosettes and pot them up into individual 9cm pots filled with a mix of perlite and multi-purpose compost.
All of our Campanulas do well throughout the garden when planted in full sun or partial shade. As tall plants C. medium look very effective peeking out behind our low formal Lonicera nitida hedges and in front of the more informal woodland edge of the garden boundary . Many writers recommend that they prefer a moist but well drained soil.
Pest and diseases
I have to say that we find all our Campanulas to be pretty resilient to pest and diseases. It is reported that they are susceptible to slugs and snails but we have very little problem (perhaps they are attracted away by other more tasty morsels!).
It is also reported that they are prone to powdery mildew and rust diseases but again we have had little problem with these diseases on our plants. In order to see the flowers at their best we do space the plants well apart and this may well allow plenty of air to circulate between them thus keeping these diseases at bay.
Armitage and Laushman² report that Campanulas do not seem to need a period of cold treatment to start producing rosette leaves but do need a period of cold to initiate flowering. C. persicifolia, for example, requires 12 weeks at or below 4°C to initiate flowering. Treating sown plants as biennials seems to sit well with these findings. Our spring sown plants of C. medium do not seem to flower in the year that they are sow. However, planted out in mid-September and allowed to over winter in the cold flower beds they produce robust, upright, tall plants that flower over a long period.
Armitage and Laushman also indicate that C. persicifolia is day neutral which means it flowers under both short or long days once the cold treatment requirements have been satisfied. For other Campanula species long days are required for flowering after vernalisation. (see: How plants use day length to decide when to flower (Photoperiodism) for more background on this).
It would appear that the new Champion series of Campanula medium does not require cold treatment which means they can be grown more effectively in greenhouse conditions. This helps enormously if you are growing purely to produce cut flowers and want a longer season of production.
Cutting and conditioning
It is certainly our experience that the tall varieties of Campanula all make excellent cut flowers. The inflorescence opens from the bottom providing a long period of interest in the vase and in the garden.
Typically you would cut when the bottom one or two flowers have coloured and are open. We use a standard conditioning approach of cutting the flowers directly into cool, clean water containing ‘flower food’ to keep the water fresh and minimise bacterial development.
The stems often produce sap when cut so it is wise to keep them in a separate bucket from other flowers, rinsing the cut stems every 20 minutes or so until the sap stops flowing.
C. medium, C. persicifolia, C. latifolia and C. pyramidalis all offer a light, airy and open effect which is ideal for natural, country style arrangements and bouquets. C. glomerata is perhaps more structural, upright and dense in form but its strong purple shade works well with bold colours like oranges and scarlets.
Whereas many of the Campanulas we grow are upright and need some support to produce quality blooms we have seen beautiful trailing forms on our travels in Croatia and Montenegro this year growing in very dry, well drained, rocky conditions on walls and buildings. It is often very difficult to get good trailing colour for use in flower arrangements and this growing approach is well worth considering.
Campanula medium (Canterbury Bells)
Originating from southern Europe¹ these large robust plants grow to 2 feet to 2 feet 6 inches in height. They have a long flowering season starting in June and continue through to August. As the flowers open consecutively from the bottom to the top they provide a long period of interest and colour. They are quite heavy plants and although they have robust stems they do tend to need some support to stop them looking untidy.
We grown these from seed each year and treat them as biennials. The RHS considers them to have a hardiness rating of H4 (Hardy through most of the UK (-10 to -5)).
We have grown two forms: the cup and saucer varieties which have big robust flowers on strong stems and also the singles (which do not have the saucers). We do find these rather ‘chunky’ in nature and are not really delicate enough for use in bouquets and small arrangements.
The ‘Champion’ series, however, that you typically get from your floristry wholesaler are a very different cut flower and we have used these extensively over the years. Grown as an annual they can be brought through to flowering in around 15 weeks. They are available in a range of colours from blue through white and to pink.
Campanula persicifolia (the peach leaved campanula)
To my mind C. persicifolia is rather more attractive and delicate than C. medium. This species is a perennial that is native to most of Europe and the Benelux countries eastwards towards Central and Southern Russia and North West Turkey³. It seeds itself freely around our garden but is also easy to multiply by division (the latter technique particularly useful if you want to bulk up the delicate ‘alba’ form).
C. persicifolia has evergreen foliage and has been given the H7 hardiness rating by the RHS (Hardy in the severest European continental climates (< -20)). In nature it grows in meadows, open woods and on the edge of forests.
As with C. medium the inflorescence opens from the bottom to the top. This give a long period of flowering in the garden border. Flowering can be extended still further by dead heading. In this case you are not removing the whole flower spike but removing the individual dead flowers before they set seed. You will find new flowers develop at the base of each flower stem.
Campanula pyramidalis (the Chimney Bell Flower)
When grown well C. pyramidalis can grow up to 2 metres in height producing tall spikes of pyramid shapes flowers that are excellent for large flower arrangements. Flowering from May until July, it is a short-lived perennial that, like C. medium, is often grown as a biennial. It is native to southern Europe and the western Balkans¹.
Campanula glomerata (the clustered bellflower)
C. glomerata is a vigorous rhizomatous perennial that has a tendency to sucker. The species is native to the North Temperate Zone of Eurasia, from Europe to Japan¹. It grows to around 1-2 feet in height producing clusters of typically deep purple flowers on strong stems. There is also a beautiful crisp white variety (see below). The RHS website indicates that it is hardy in the severest European continental climates (< -20) (RHS hardiness rating H7).
Campanula latifolia (the giant bellflower)
Very much more delicate than C. glomerata or C. medium, C. latifolia is one of my favourite Campanulas in the garden. It seeds freely and seems to come back without problems year after year in a rather inhospitable spot in the garden. We tried to move some seedlings to what we considered to be rather better soil and they just did not ‘do’. The answer I think is that that actually like poor dry soil.
C. latifolia is again native to Europe extending to western Asia as far east as Kashmir.
Campanula portenschlagiana (the wall bellflower)
Very different in form from the others mentioned in this article is C. portenschlagiana. This is a very robust, low growing creeping plant that in our garden grows in minimal soil around the base of the house and patio steps. It was at the house well before we arrived 25 years ago and I am sure will still be about when we finally leave. It produces masses of blue flowers throughout the summer.
It is an alpine plant and requires a very well drained area in full sun to thrive. We have found that is does not compete well with plants like Saxifraga x urbium (London Pride) which can easily swap this Campanula if not kept in check.
And finally some trivia …
Su Whale⁴ in her guide on cut flowers cites the following charming piece of flower trivia. In Germany and in the Netherlands the Campanula flower is known as ‘Rapunzal Bellflower’ and supposedly was the inspiration behind Grimm’s fairy tale.
Although it could be argued that the garden in November is winding down ready for winter it is in fact one of our busiest months for preparing for next seasons spring show.
We do have a lot of hardy perennial bulbs that return year after year but find that most of our tulips do not survive more than one season and do not flower well in their second year.
Each year therefore we have great fun browsing the catalogues and selecting our colour combinations. Our aim is to achieve a succession of flowering through the season and also have striking colour combinations at any moment in time. It is not all about the tulips though and combining the tulips with wallflowers, alliums, violas, camassia and other spring blooms can create a much more interesting effect than tulips alone.
Rather pleasingly we have had some decent spells of dry weather this year allowing us to plant all the bulbs in good time (using our new Powerplanter gadget in many cases). All we need now is a good spell of cold winter weather to encourage the tulips to produce long stems and hope that the spray we use to keep the squirrels at bay works well. Fingers crossed!
Despite the rather dank and grey days here at the end of November, Carol has still managed to bring together flowers and foliage from the garden to brighten up the house.
In this arrangement we have six for Saturday; two varieties of autumn flowering chrysanthemums (purchased from Sarah Raven but varieties now unknown), the rose ‘Simply the Best’ which is still throwing out new blooms despite the cold, the Viburnum bodnantense which just started to flower and will flower in the garden throughout the coldest days of the winter, the yellow autumn foliage of the Hornbeam and finally the deep purple leaves of Cotinus coggygria.
Although very pretty and a wonderful winter scent in the garden, we must admit that the fragrance of Viburnum bodnantense has proved rather over powering inside the house and is perhaps best left in the garden!
Each year we plant literally thousands of bulbs around the garden and if you suffer from any kind of wrist or hand problems it can be very difficult and somewhat painful. To date we have got on best using a standard sturdy trowel but it is hard work especially when planting into turf or uncultivated ground. Over the years we have also tried the stand-up bulb planters but found these very tedious. The plug of soil in the planter never comes out again as easily as it should to refill the hole.
When we saw the adverts for Powerplanter we were intrigued. It seemed like a simple and obvious solution. It is basically a large soil drill that fits into a cordless hand drill and digs you a hole for your bulbs, plug plants or larger plants grown in 9cm pots.
At the time of writing there are four types in the range (www.powerplanter.co.uk) in various sizes ranging from one for planting seeds through to a longer one for ‘stand-up’ digging. The one we chose was the mid-range planter, the 307 model (7 inches long x 3 inches wide). It describes itself as being suitable for ‘potted colour and bulbs’ and cost just under £40.
We have used it for planting autumn bulbs over a number of weeks now and in a nutshell it works! Here are some of our observations:
If you are going to use if for any length of time you do need a good quality cordless drill. I found my old drill battery was just not up to the job so treated myself to a new DeWalt DCD776S2T-GB 18V 1.5Ah Li-Ion Cordless Combi Drill. This comes with 2 rechargeable battery packs and is certainly able to keep going longer than I can!
The planter works well in moist soil in the cultivated flower beds. It also made light work of creating planting holes in previously uncultivated turf that we had killed off over the summer and had never been dug over. It did begin to struggle cutting into hard dry soil under a large oak tree but I was having difficulty getting a garden fork into that anyway.
You do need to be quite organised to avoid your drill getting covered in mud or wet. At this time of year the grass can be damp with dew in the morning and you need somewhere to put your drill down as you move around. I just use an old dog towel which keeps everything dry and clean.
When planting the bulbs I have got into the habit of working with one gloved ‘dirty hand’ and one ‘dry clean hand’. The dry clean hand operates the drill whilst the gloved ‘dirty’ hand plants the bulbs and covers over the hole with the loose soil. You can work very fast this way.
I have found that the planter is quite accurate and you can easily plant bulbs between other plants without damaging them. For example we have been planting bulbs amongst wall flowers that were set out about 9 inches apart in September.
If you are using someone else’s drill you might like to get their permission first. You do have to be quite careful not to get mud into the chuck which certainly could be a pain if the drill is normally used for indoor jobs. The 7 inch planter is only just long enough for digging holes for tulip bulbs and in hind site the longer 12 inch planter might have been better.
Finally do read the safety instructions and wear appropriate eye protection. Running on a slow speed it does not throw much soil up towards your face but it could.
Finally for the action movie 😉
For some reason my niece dissolved into fits of laughter seeing me drilling holes in the garden! The youngsters of today have no imagination!