April's Learning Journey

As part of our celebrations for National Garden Week, we’re celebrating the people who bring you the Garden House. Here’s Jennifer Wright, one of our amazing student gardeners, explains what she’s been doing this month as part of her learning journey.

Spring has sprung with a surprise heatwave just in time for Easter. I don’t know about you but I have had a great weekend in the sun and the plants in the garden have truly benefited from the sunshine, especially, after the cold snap at the start of the month. 

Yellow Magnolia Near the entrance. c. Jennifer Wright

Yellow Magnolia Near the entrance. c. Jennifer Wright

As part of our PGG traineeship, in our 2nd year we are asked to take part in a study trip to Portugal at the end of March. It was my turn this year, our other trainee went last year and assured me that I would have an amazing time. She was right, I did. I spent two weeks in Portugal. The first week I spent time working as an intern at Monserrate Gardens in Sintra, here we worked in the fern valley to terrace an area. We planted Bromeliads, Orchids, Tree Ferns and Gingers, all of which I have seen as houseplants or glasshouse plants here at home but it was wonderful to see them growing outside so happily. It is good to know that weeds are universal problem including brambles! In my 2nd week, myself and the other 2nd year trainees joined the Mediterranean Gardening Association on their pre-conference tour in the Algarve. The tour brought people together from all around the world with a passion for Mediterranean plants. We visited areas of horticultural interest all over the Algarve including travelling to the top of Monchique Mountain to see dreaded Rhododendron ponticum which is so rare there but such a menace back home. I will freely admit that Mediterranean plants aren’t to my taste but I learnt so much from those two weeks. I was truly inspired to be working with people that knew so much and were happy to share. It was an experience that I would be happy to repeat in the future. 

2 Borders in front of Monserrate Palace. ©JWright

2 Borders in front of Monserrate Palace. ©JWright

Now that I am back to work, spring has commenced. The plants are finally moving again and green is filling the garden. This new green world tells us that it is time to start sowing seed so we have. Here at the Garden House, we sow annuals, biennials and perennials every spring as well as some in the autumn. Some seeds need a period of what we call stratification, this means they need a period of cold which can be anywhere from a few days to a few months before they will germinate. Annuals have a life cycle of around 1 year, they begin life in the spring, flower and then die in the autumn and winter. Quite often you come across the term half-hardy annuals on the side of seed packets. Half-hardy annuals are tender plants, this means that they cannot withstand frost so need to be planted out once any risk of frost has passed. Sometimes, half-hardy annuals are actually perennial plants in their native regions but die here when the days and nights grow cold. Biennials have a life cycle of two years. In the first year, the plant makes vegetative growth (leaves) and then in the 2nd year will flower in the spring or summer, produce seed and then die. Our native Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is an example of a biennial plant with gorgeous purple flowers in the summer that is well worth the space in a garden. Watch out though! It is poisonous and can be an issue in the front of borders if you have children or pets. Perennial is a catch all term for a plant which lives 3 or more years, this includes herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees and seed from these, especially trees, can occasionally take a whole lot of time and encouragement to germinate. 

3 Preparing Cleome seedlings for potting up. ©JWright

3 Preparing Cleome seedlings for potting up. ©JWright

Back to the point, earlier in the year we began by sowing older seed. Our head gardener found a stash of interesting seeds in the back of a cupboard leading to Narnia, including Davidia involucrata or the Handkerchief tree. These seeds are varying ages and may not germinate.  The viability of seeds drops for every year they are in a packet so it is always best to sow packet seed the same year you bought them. Trees, for instance oaks, lose viability very quickly and if they dry out are unlikely ever to germinate. We sowed the seed hoping that something would find its way into the light and amazingly, little gems are appearing on the surface of our seed trays. At the start of this month, the real work began when we started sowing annuals and biennials to plant out later in the year. Annuals are only a small part of the summer display here but find themselves everywhere in the garden from the Walled Garden, to the borders around the house and even out near Birch wood. Not by any stretch of imagination can I remember every type of seed sown but I do remember a striking one – Mina lobata or firecracker vine is spray of flowers which start red but fade to cream at the base. Mina lobata is one of those half-hardy annuals which is actually a perennial native to Mexico. 

4 Tree planting Sorbus aucuparia or Mountain Ash in the Arboretum. ©JWright

4 Tree planting Sorbus aucuparia or Mountain Ash in the Arboretum. ©JWright

Once the seed are sown, we put them in our poly tunnels. This is where, once they have germinated, they will be pricked out of their seed trays and then potted on. They will live their lives for a couple more weeks in the poly tunnels to grow up and then be put outside and the poly tunnel doors will be left open for longer every day for the rest of the summer. This will harden them off, plants which are put outside directly from the glasshouse into the ground suffer the same as we do. You know that feeling when you come back home after being on holiday for a couple of weeks, you step off the plane and suddenly you are freezing cold. Well, this is the same feeling for plants but they can suffer a bit more because they can’t pull their jacket out of their suitcase which they haven’t worn in 2 weeks but brought anyway because it was cold when you left even though it’s summer. When they are ready, we will plant them out into the garden and they will enhance what is already there. 

5 Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Geisha Girl’ by the entrance. ©JWright

5 Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Geisha Girl’ by the entrance. ©JWright

As part of our yearly cycle to make space for the plants being brought on from seed, the poly tunnels are checked thoroughly and any plants which are ready to go out or have been propagated over the winter months are planted out in new homes. That is what Jen and I have been working on for the last week. Our head gardener places them on the ground where he would like them planted then it is our task to find and record each of these new plantings. Our records tell us the name of the plants, where they came from, what bed we put them in and how many went in. This is so that our bed lists can be updated regularly for our peace of mind and when visitors inevitably ask a question about that one plant you don’t know, we can find the information for them quickly. It also helps us to know if we have something in the garden already for future planting projects. 

6 Orange tip butterfly spotted resting on forget-me-not in the cottage garden. Photograph by Jen Saywell.

6 Orange tip butterfly spotted resting on forget-me-not in the cottage garden. Photograph by Jen Saywell.

So, what’s looking good in the garden? Spring is my favourite time of year for flowers because it’s cold, grey and wet and then suddenly the balance tips and it is spring, colour exploding everywhere. From one blink to the next, new plants are in flower and the previous ones are gone. Right now, the Japanese Cherries in the garden are in full swing, a springtime classic. While the canopy is full of pinks and creams the shrubs below are awash with pink or red Rhododendron, peach Chaenomeles and orange Berberis. It is the undergrowth below that blows me away. Erythroniums, Dicentra, Bluebells and Fritillaries have carpeted the ground. The wildflower meadow is full of flowering fritillaries, bluebells, daffodils, and Cardamine. Orange tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) have been spotted in the garden; this good sign is partly due to the encouragement of Cardamine pratensis growing in the lawns. These butterflies use Cardamine to breed so the abundance of flowers here will hopefully mean we see a growth in the numbers of orange tips in the future. Finally, I hope you all had a great Easter weekend, I hope to see you in the future around the garden. Don’t hesitate to ask me or any of the other members of staff questions, we are happy to help.