Winding thoughts on Wisteria

It's early May and I’m looking out of the upstairs office window as I write this, and after the weather we’ve all been experiencing lately I’m happy to see the wisteria budding. In a month it will be knocking on the window and the tendrils will be making their way through the gaps in the sashes. 

 This umbrella is made from polytunnel arches!

This umbrella is made from polytunnel arches!

Wisteria is often seen as hard to grow and hard to maintain. Don’t let the doom-mongers put you off! This sinuous climber is pretty easy going. It’s hardy, likes a damp soil and once it’s mature it will reward you with tumbling racemes that flower for up to two months and are highly scented. It grows in various locations around the garden here, facing all points of the compass. As long as it has some light it will flower. We’ve only got one south facing wall, which is the back of the Sunken Garden. It's home to our earliest flowering wisteria, which is an old plant and an unknown white variety.  I'm tempted to tell you is Wisteria 'Alba' but I'm not 100% sure. I am sure though, that it flowers earliest as it is in the warmest spot.

I enjoy this plant year round - not just when it’s colourful. The sinuous stems create trunks that make great features as backdrops for other plants. It’s often grown over buildings and is best secured by wires - it’s not a self-clinger like ivy, so it won’t ruin render.  It romps away here over walls, buildings and even a bridge. Given time you can shape it over structures which can bring real height and interest to any space. At the top of Tom's Steps we have it across an umbrella that’s made of old poly tunnel arches.  That's one of my favourite features in the garden. I love the ingenuity and thrift of gardening and using old polytunnel arches to make an elegant feature that's been pictured in gardening magazines all over the world just sums up something that's very good about gardening.

People seem wary of pruning wisteria, but it really is straightforward. Basically, prune the whippy summer growth a little in August and a bit more in February. If you don’t want to prune it, don’t. You won’t get as many flowers but it will get bigger, quicker.  interestingly, the wisteria growing up the house next to the porch was really struggling and the head gardener at the time almost ring-barked it to encourage better growth. It worked and the plant is now much healthier. You might not be brave enough to near ring-bark your wisteria, but it's worth bearing in mind that the plant responds to brave pruning. See you in the garden soon -Nick.

Dog tooth violets - how to grow them

There’s no doubt that March has been unkind to gardeners. We’ve dealt with snow days and high winds, torrential rain and frosts. I’ve also got mildly annoyed by some pond algae, but that’s another story.

 Erythronium revolutum flower in April throughout the garden

Erythronium revolutum flower in April throughout the garden

It’s been such a cold month that I’m looking forward more than ever to seeing the Erythronium push up from the ground. We have masses of them here and they look glorious. Over the years they have self-seeded and cross pollinated, because of this easy-going habit they are a plant labeller’s nightmare.  However, that same easy-going approach to life makes them easy for everyone to grow. If your garden has a spot with some dappled shade in spring, preferably under a tree or two, then you have good conditions to plant bulbs of these delicate-looking woodlanders.

A plant for shady spaces and woodlands

Don’t worry too much about where the sun will reach them, just plant them where you can see them on ground that isn’t too wet. They prefer the sort of mulchy, acidic soil you get under trees where the leaf litter has rotted down. They will disappear in the summer, so remember where you put them if you’re planting anything else on top.

I enjoy the way their attractive, dark green leaves make a good backdrop to the delicate flowers, that are pink, white or yellow. They get their common name, ‘Dog Tooth Violets’ because the bulbs are pointy like canine teeth. They don’t look like your typical violets, so I’m not so sure where that bit comes from! They have swept back petals and look more delicate than they are. You don’t need to do much to maintain them, just let them do their thing.

I shall appreciate them more than ever this year as it seems as though we’ve been looking at winter plants for too long. I think this year once the soil warms up we could be in for an extraordinary late spring. Now there’s something to look forward to!
 

Daphnes - a must for every winter garden

Daphne scents - a Christmas present

One of the joys of being a gardener is sharing experiences in the garden. However, the garden is closed through the winter, so special moments can pass by unnoticed.
Right now if I could share one thing with you it would be the scent of a Daphne growing near the path by the arboretum. It’s a non-descript shrub for most of the year, an evergreen column, head-height, with narrow, glossy leaves. Thousands of people walk past it, eyes drawn to more dramatic views. However, this Christmas, a present all for me was the scent of the Daphne, drifting in a mild breeze.  Dartmoor is nowhere near as high as the Himalayas, where Daphnes, also called ‘Nepalese Paper Plant’ herald from. Imagine the knock-out scent of a host of these plants on a high mountain breeze!
You don’t need much space to grow one. Daphnes vary from small bushes at almost ground level, to 2m shrubs. There are a number of varieties. The one I am describing is Daphne ‘bholua’. I think they are relatively expensive to other shrubs, but I forgive them as winter perfume is worth a few extra pounds.
If you can, invest in a taller plant to enjoy scent at nose-height. You’ll need a sheltered spot, but don’t get hung up on that – just avoid wild and windswept! They tolerate most soils; moist and well drained is best, sandy and exposed would be worst. Part shade suits them better than drying out in full sun.
They are easy to look after, very hardy and slow to grow. Bear that in mind as its worth buying the biggest plant you can. Spring planting is best, so your Daphne can get established for a winter display.
I wouldn’t be without one in any garden that has winter interest. And frankly, this Christmas, it was the best present I had!

Nick Haworth, Head Gardener

Nick Haworth
Winter clematis, a good plant for walls facing North and East

A real winter beauty

Right now the medieval tower in our garden is being blasted with hail and sleet.  I know that the clematis in full flower covering it won’t be damaged though, as it’s a winter variety bred for coping with wet and cold. Unlike the clematis, I am feeling a bit rain-weary and I’m glad to be indoors writing this!

Clematis urophylla ‘Winter Beauty’

 

Clematis urophylla ‘Winter Beauty’ is an evergreen climber that copes well on awkward, cold walls. Ours is on an east facing wall, and it’s wrapping quite happily around the corner to also face north.  That ability to thrive when other plants fail is often what sets a winter plant apart from it’s softie summer cousins.

This particular clematis has a creamy white flower that wouldn’t look out of place as the skirt on a fairy or the hat on a woodland elf. It’s petals turn down and then out, revealing a dark stamen.  The petals are thick - they look succulent which adds another layer of interest. Ours is well over 4 metres tall and very healthy, so although it’s not always thought of as a very easy plant to grow, I will always recommend it for a tricky cold wall or to scramble through a tree. The only care it gets is a prune in spring once it’s flowered and a good load of mulch on the base each winter. 

I always wander around the garden to choose what plant to write about. We’ve had snowdrops for weeks, the crocuses and irises are on their way up and plenty of camellias are already blooming. This clematis caught my eye as as it deserves some attention. It’s usually providing background interest for a walloping great wisteria that covers the tower in blue by May. I’m very happy to see it and look forward to enjoying it right through February.

Winter has been mild and spring is coming early up here on Dartmoor. I hope the plants in your garden are showing signs of warmer, drier days to come! 

Happy gardening, Nick.

Where I stand on benches

We have benches and quiet places to sit around the garden. Some of the benches have to be taken inside over winter, others are too heavy to move so we cover them in tarpaulins and keep the worst of the weather off.  I'm not alone in not always getting time to sit down in the garden and just relax and enjoy it. I often hear people chatting about how nice it is to stay still and enjoy the garden.  We've just put the oak benches out for the new season, so I thought I'd write a blog on where the best places to sit are. here's where I would sit if I had the time!

The best benches to rest on in the garden

The Tennis Court bench in the Walled Garden is the most popular I think. Although people seem to take photos of it rather than sit on it, so maybe I'm getting this list wrong! Anyway, it's a grand old bench; a Lutyens design. It's all lichen-covered and dwarfed by the planting behind at various times of the year. The most dramatic is when the Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' sticks up about 5 foot above it. 

Then come the Cottage Garden benches. There are two here that are special. The first is in the 'ruins' of the cottage walls. These walls are a folly, created to make it look like a tumbledown cottage that's been over-run with wild plants. It was modelled on a cottage in Crete that the head gardener at the time, Keith Wiley, had seen whilst travelling. The other bench is near the silver birch trees, giving views all the way down the valley to St. Andrew's Church, in Buckland Monachorum. 

My fourth choice is a bench that was new in 2017. It's on a smashing spot, down by the lake, underneath an oak tree. We had to remodel the bank to get it in place but the effort was well worth it and many people have already adopted it as a favourite place to be. 

I'll stop at five or I'll be here all day. The next choice is the long bench in the Sunken Garden. This one is a real suntrap. in fact it's one of the warmest, most sheltered spots we have. ironically with all the walls in this place, this is my only South facing stone to put tender climbers on. The Sunken Garden is always home to blackbirds and other garden birds. It's tucked away behind the barn and is a perfect spot to sit quietly, often unobserved, watching the world go by.

I've realised instead of stopping, I should mention that I'd like to put a special picnic bench in the Dell. I've seen one that is giant sized, with seats and sections that pull out to make tables for children to sit at. It would be perfect for storytelling and family lunches. If anyone knows any carpenters with time on their hands - let me know! 

See you in the garden soon,

Nick.

Winter iris for February and March

Winter iris bring a touch of blue

The early spring bulb meadow is an area of the garden that I keep coming back to. Early flowering bulbs tend to be low to the ground as they are hardy enough to cope with lingering, rough weather. When I crouch down to look at the early iris and crocus bulbs in February and March they are a blast of colour and fascinating detail. Stand up and look down on them and they can look a bit humble before they really get going.
I haven’t got time to spend all day crouching, so the solution is to look at where they have come from, and plant them in a similar way.

 Iris histrioides 'Angel's Tears'

Iris histrioides 'Angel's Tears'

Take Iris histrioides, commonly known as ‘winter iris’. It’s typically a vivid blue iris in various shades. In Turkey, where they grow in the wild, they burst through the ground on naked stems and turn mountainsides blue. Inspired by this I’m planting more and more bulbs for early spring, so that in years to come we will have our own carpet of colour.
Some of the iris varieties here are unusual, so bulbs are expensive or impossible to find in bulk. That’s why I’m letting mine bulk up their numbers naturally, whilst under-planting with the easy-to-find Crocus tommasinianus. The light mauve of the crocus and deeper blue of the iris work perfectly together. I’m looking forward to the days when they have naturalised so abundantly that we need to thin them out.

I can’t recommend winter irises strongly enough. Look out for the readily available Iris reticulata in the garden centres or online. There will be a number of varieties to choose from. Plant them in the autumn a couple of inches deep and look forward to the day in February when they push up and turn out blue.

You don’t need a bulb meadow or mountainside to enjoy the power of these irises. They are perfect for well-planned pots partnered with violas or winter pansies. They also make an impact in small areas where their colour will pack a punch. Just make sure the drainage is good. They are pretty tough, even pushing their way through snow and ice. Get your camera ready for that; it makes a change from snowdrops!

Nick Haworth, Head Gardener

Abutilon - how to grow it and enjoy it

Our mild climate makes it possible to grow semi-hardy plants outside and be rewarded with some pretty exotic looking plants late in the season. In October there are plants either popping up as autumn bulbs or surprising us with long flowering displays. Abutilon are long-flowering Brazilian medal-winners in an autumn planting scheme. They belong to the genus of mallow plants, (Malvaceae) with an exotic look and bright colours, often golds, pinks and reds.

Abutilon 'Victory'

Abutilon ‘Victory’ is a trailing variety, reaching up to 2m high. It’s happy outside as long it’s protected from frosts below 5 degrees. I haven’t lost one yet and as I garden on the edge of Dartmoor don’t worry about it being tender.

It’s semi-evergreen, losing leaves as new ones push through. Let it stand free as a trailing shrub, or tie it like a short climber. A wall can provide shelter from frost and support, but it might starve the roots from moisture and that’s no good for this tropical, greedy-feeder. Make sure you keep it well watered and fed.

As the days shorten you want to keep the flowering going for as long as possible, so think about the passage of the sun through your garden and position it for as many hours of sunshine as you can.

Prune if you must in late spring, when you can also take softwood cuttings for back-up plants in case we get a really hard winter that catches us all out.

I enjoy the colour this plant brings to the garden. I dot them where the colours can be seen at head height to appreciate the contrast between the gold and red flowers. They work well on the terraces so visitors experience them at different heights. I think there’s a lot to be said for looking at the detail of October plants. The big sweeping drifts of summer colour may be gone but there is still plenty to enjoy in the garden.

Nick Haworth, Head Gardener

Lobelia – but not as you know it

Lobelia is most often seen as the little semi-trailing blue, white and purple plants that are used as frothy little annuals in borders and hanging baskets.

 Lobelia speciosa 'Russian Princess' in the Sunken Garden

Lobelia speciosa 'Russian Princess' in the Sunken Garden

There are perennial lobelia too and I prefer them. I’m concentrating on Lobelia speciosa; there are just over 30 varieties of them, all of which are in the deep pink, scarlet, purple colour spectrum. Some varieties are very unusual. The most popular is probably ‘Russian Princess’ which has reddish leaves and bright scarlet flowers.

We grow a number of varieties which are clump forming, generally getting up to about three feet high (or a metre in new money) so make sure you have the room as they won’t fit in many baskets!

They like a fertile soil that is moist but not waterlogged, and they are often planted by ponds. We keep ours in the Walled Garden, which, like the rest of Dartmoor, is reliably moist. If you have full sun or partial shade that will be fine. They aren’t too fussy but as bees love them and they are very brightly coloured I try to plant them in a sunny spot. We use plant supports in our borders so they are secured against the wind. If you leave them unsupported they should be fine but can flop a bit in very windy or wet weather. As a rule of thumb, they should be OK unsupported but pop some supports around the clump if it’s likely to flop onto a path or a lawn.

If you grow lobelia from seed you’ll find it is very fine so you’ll get a clump of seedlings to carefully prick out. Just keep the soil moist and warm until germination. I’d water from the base as the seedlings are very delicate until they get a bit more established.

With the established plants we have I divide them in spring to make new clumps, so once you have either bought a plant or grown some from seed you should have a good source of these super plants for years to come.

Happy gardening.

Nick.