Growing by the moon

At first sight the subject of our October meeting might have seemed a bit esoteric, possibly a bit ‘hippy-dippy’, but in fact gardening – more specifically, growing food – in line with phases of the moon has been in use for millennia: it was, for instance, done by the Romans.

It’s also done by two of our local gardeners, Mary and Dennis. Very, very effectively.

img_5899

They outlined the basics for us: a waxing moon (one going from new to full) is supposed to be good for flowers, annuals and above-ground fruiting veg; a waning moon (from full to new) is good for roots and for pruning. This is narrowed down to three days centred on the day of the full or new moon itself. And that’s why a copy of Old Moore’s Almanack was on the table – in amongst all the wild predictions is a single page which lists moon planting days. Several people remembered their grandparents working like this, too, as did our speakers: in their case, one grandparent used the system in the States, and another used it in the South Wales valleys. It works best when the garden is organic.

But how did Mary and Dennis come to this way of gardening themselves?  They were right in the middle of an appalling industrial accident in Michigan in 1973. A fire-retardant chemical was accidentally mixed into cattle feed, but it didn’t just poison the cattle: it also affected pigs and over 1.5 million chickens; 500 farms were quarantined and about 9 million people consumed heavily contaminated food before anything came – reluctantly – to light (it still affects people today). At this point they decided that ‘never again were we going to trust the food system’. They moved initially to the Isle of Man, and then to Harlech. They now grow their food on a plot of land between Dyffryn and Talybont, where they produce some very impressive crops.

But they were careful to stress that their success isn’t just about planting with phases of the moon, even though that can be very effective (seeds planted on one moon usually come up by the next one, and with a 90% germination rate too – I’ve tried this, and it worked). It’s also about caring for the soil, and they described our soil as the ‘best we’ve ever grown on’. That’s not to say it doesn’t need work, of course – manuring, digging up stones, warming it up with black plastic (which also helps with weed restriction). They follow a three-year cycle which matches their crop rotation: year one, lime for brassicas; year two, compost for peas and beans and year three ‘muck, muck, muck’ for potatoes.

Here are some tips:
* Moles can be problematic, but they hate castor oil. Make a hole in the mole hill with a cane, dribble a bit of pure castor oil down and it seems to make them go away.
* Working by the moon can have another advantage: it organises you. It gives a definite timetable, whatever the weather (‘that’s what they make waterproofs for’).
* Other things can be done when convenient: ‘I manure whenever I have time’.
* Manure from Welsh cobs is perfect
* Slugs don’t like wood chippings (or at least Mary and Dennis’s slugs don’t).

And the mystery green-and-white object in the photo? It’s a Chinese Melon. It’s not sweet but is rather like a watermelon inside – now you know!

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Back for 2016 – with plants, wildflower seeds and solitary bees

It’s the start of our gardening – and meetings – year. The AGM is over, the new schedule is up and looks fab, but unfortunately our May speaker developed food poisoning the day before and couldn’t make the meeting. So, at very short notice, our President Guy Lloyd stepped in. And we had a fabulous evening.

It started with one of our members introducing Kew’s ‘Grow Wild / Tyfu’n Wyllt’ boxes, part of their ‘flowers to the people’ campaign, which encourages people to plant wild flower patches (seeds included), and create homes for solitary bees (the kit is in the box too):

solitary bee house

Several people took the boxes, and it will be interesting to see what comes up from the free seeds, and whether any solitary bees take up the offer of accommodation.

Then Guy took us through some of his favourite plants for this time of year, and also gave us some great tips. They included tips about vegetables (still time, just, to plant squashes and runner beans), recommendations of some more ordinary plants (narcissus, but a good late variety in a lovely pale lemon, Pipit), and of some rarer ones like Drimys winterii:

Drimys winterii(image courtesy of the RHS)

Another shrub – or small tree – which was new to many of us was Exochorda macracantha ‘The Bride’, which is certainly spectacular.

Exochorda

(image courtesy of Plant World Seeds)

This shrub has a rather loose habit and takes its time to get going; though it can get floppy, it can also be cut back for better shape over the winter (though, like many shrubs, that might involve sacrificing the flowers for the following year). And then there was a recommendation for something rather smaller – Brunnera macrophylla, but not ‘Jack Frost’ which is commonly available. Instead, Guy went for ‘Looking Glass’:

brunnera

Clematis montana can be somewhat rampant round here, and Guy was able to recommend Freda as a variety which was controllable, and had good darker flowers; another member suggested Warwickshire Rose.

Some specimens were passed round the room, and one which caused quite a stir was Euphorbia mellifera, the honey spurge.

honey spurge

Guy said it that this was a very good year for this markedly honey-scented shrub, and indeed it is. This photograph and the one below come from Plas Cadnant, the location for our club’s outing next month. Hopefully the honey spurges will still be in flower, because they are fantastic.

honey spurge again

We were all making notes, and several of us will be trying to track down unusual plants (and sneaking the last squashes into a seed box). What a lovely evening, even if it wasn’t quite as predicted. We look forward to welcome the speaker who should have been with us, Paul O’Byrne from Plas Newydd, next year. And we wish him a speedy recovery!

(Incidentally, those members coming to Plas Cadnant should note that bringing walking boots / sensible non-slippy footwear is a good idea if you want to explore the wooded areas of the garden. It’s possible without, but better with…)

Perennially interesting

We had an excellent September meeting, with Christine ffoulkes Jones from Hall Farm Nursery. Many of us have bought from them at various plant fairs, and we had another opportunity to do so (ahem).

Hall Farm sales table

Christine gave us an excellent run-through of her favourite plants in her talk, called ‘Perennials through the Seasons’. The nursery isn’t that far away, on the Shropshire border, and before long we were all writing down names of plants we couldn’t live without. Throughout her talk she stressed collaboration with other specialist growers, which was fascinating and meant that she ranged more widely than perennials – indeed, she started with snowdrops.

Hellebores came up,

hellebore

and she suggested keeping the seeds from the popular garden hybrids as ‘you never know what you’re going to get’. Then there were wood anemones, Anemonella thalictoides (a wonderfully unusual ‘Green Hurricane’), fritillaries, corydalis (a startlingly blue one, ‘Kingfisher’), and epimediums.

epimedium

These were described as ‘underrated’, which is a real shame because they are so gorgeous – not only do they have the most lovely flowers, but the foliage also colours up beautifully in autumn (Christine reminded us to cut this off in January / February, before the flowers come up).

Summer led her to emphasise the daisy family: anthemis, erigerons, osteospermums,

Osteospermum

and echinaceas (which like sun at the base – don’t crowd them, she noted). Throughout, Christine stressed the importance of the garden to wildlife, and pointed out that the echinaceas, lasting well into autumn, are vital. The same applies to the wonderful Inula hookerii, of which she showed a fantastic example that made most of us resolve to grow it immediately. If, that is, we had a large enough space available.

Heleniums – quite a star in Hall Farm’s range – came next. Christine particularly recommended Moerheim Beauty, Sahin’s Early Flowerer and Ruby Tuesday. The latter is shorter and particularly useful if you hate canes as Christine does: ‘if it needs a cane I probably don’t grow it’, she said. This led naturally onto the grasses, and here she was careful to draw attention to something all gardeners sometimes forget to do in the rush of jobs: the need to really look at your plants. She stressed the importance of light through grasses,

stipa

and suggested leaving the heads on the plants through winter, only cutting them back in early spring. Then – cut them down ruthlessly!

The year was rounded off with a few more – penstemons and Japanese anemones, for example – and then Christine told us her very favourite plant. It was a bit surprising to some  of us: Verbena bonarensis. She showed a border with a mass planting, and we understood. Lovely.

An excellent evening – and very well attended, given that it was completely vile weather. Many thanks indeed to Christine, and to Hall Farm Nurseries.

 

 

How things have changed!

We were entertained at our May meeting by Frank Hardy – ex-Vice Principle of Pershore -who spoke about the way gardening has changed since the 1950s. I’m not quite sure what most of us expected, but we ended up learning a lot, and laughing a lot too. Gardening has indeed changed enormously – and it’s not something you really think about.

gardening in JuneFor instance, when Mr Hardy started working in horticulture, his first job was making up seed trays. No plastic ones, but ones made from timbers, recycled fish or ammo boxes. His supervisors worked in waistcoats, with gleaming watch chains, and he thought that was how his working life was going to be. Like this illustration from a 1950s gardening manual, essentially.

There were no plastic pots, of course: something most of us take for granted nowadays. Plastic pots were introduced in 1959 and became popular in professional gardening not so much because they were cheaper, but because they absorbed the heat, and you got a bigger plant in a shorter time – commercial reasons driving change, as so often.

Then he described plans of the average garden over time, and it was interesting to see how various areas shifted in importance – with the vegetable patch shrinking and the areas given over to leisure increasing, with formal beds giving way to more informal planting, with greenhouses declining in importance (and number – from over 3 million at the end of the 60s to half that by the end of the 70s).

We all know that plants go in waves of fashionability too, but here again he was extremely interesting – and had brought along examples to illustrate his points. In the 1960s, roses were extremely popular – in fact, by the end of the decade the average garden had 25 different ones – and about half were sold through the News of the World. The first garden centre (as opposed to nursery) opened in 1962.

Bedding plants, grown by amateur gardeners and sold locally, became really popular in the late 60s and early 70s, and by then beds were becoming more informal – but the 1970s was really the era of conifers and heathers. Mr Hardy pointed out that you can easily spot gardens planted then because the conifers – now much, much larger than they were ever intended to be – still dominate.

Of course, we can all think of fashions today: how about grasses or wildflower meadows grown from seed? Or decking and the tendency for form – lots of hard landscaping – over content – plants and other green stuff – in recent years? And we’re coming back to vegetables now.  Wonder how long that will last…

A fascinating evening. Certainly made us not take our seed trays for granted!

(And some lovely plants for sale too – many thanks.)

Here, to end, is the classic hybrid tea rose of the 1960s – though it was actually developed in France before WW2, was sent abroad just in time to avoid the German invasion and had its name formally adopted on the on the day that Berlin fell to the Allies: Peace.

Peace

(The original grower, Meilland, wrote to Alanbrooke in early 1945 to thank him for the part he played in liberating France, and offered to name the rose after him. Alanbrooke declined the honour, and said that a better name would be ‘peace’.)

Such a shame that roses do not do particularly well round here. Unless they’re Rosa rugosa, that is.

Dyffryn Gardeners’ Question Time

January is always a bit off-putting in the garden: it’s cold, it’s squishy underfoot unless the ground is rock hard and/or covered in snow. But it is a perfect time for assessing things and sorting out problems. So we began the year with our very own version of Gardeners’ Question Time, only without Bob Flowerdew and the the rest. We had our own team of experts: Guy, Sheena and Karen, all professional gardeners, and Tony, our previous chairman, to keep order.

Dyffryn GQT

We’d asked for questions in advance, so our three experts could at least do a little research (the same thing happens on the radio programme, as those of us who attended the recording at Portmeirion last year will know).

So what did we learn? Among other things…

  • The only real solution to a giant pampas grass too close to the house is a mini digger.
  • Now is the time to lime the soil if you have had stunted vegetables in the past (we have acid soil here) – but not for spuds.
  • Wood ash from a stove is good as a slug preventer, but not particularly thrilling as fertiliser. However, wood ash from a bonfire is much better as the soil-nutrition benefits are in the green wood, which is normally part of a bonfire.
  • Kiwis come in male and female – though there are some exceptions -and if your kiwi is failing to fruit it may be a lonely male (there’s more information about growing kiwis here).
  • Never overcook a sprout if you want to ensure it’s edible, along with several other tips. Interestingly, we did a headcount of the people in the room who loved or hated sprouts, and by far most people liked them – in defiance of reported statistics.
  • When to prune azaleas, and how to prune them into the delicate layered shapes beloved of Japanese gardeners.
  • Possible help for an extremely exposed hedge in which most of the plants specifically recommended for wild and windy coastal conditions had died. Elaeagnus was suggested, along with planting a shelter belt of willow.
  • When to plant gladioli in order to get the best blooms for the Show (this was answered very carefully – not that there’s an element of competition, oh no…)
  • Ways of stopping mildew affecting hollyhocks too badly.
  • How to identify bacterial canker on fruit trees (a sample was provided).
  • And you cannot use an overflowing septic tank as fertiliser (happily, a sample was not provided)!

It was a great evening, enjoyable as well as informative. Many people said afterwards that they wished they had asked a question in time, so we’re intending to repeat our own GQT. And January is the prefect time.

Welcome to 2015!

There are some good things coming up this year – and there were some great things which happened since the autumn show, and our previous post. We had a wonderful Christmas party, with some challenging gardening competitions and fantastic food cooked by all the members, but we also had some great talks.

In September, Bill Warrell took us behind the scenes at a garden many of us thought we knew well, Bodnant – and we all immediately wanted to go back and explore it again. In October we learned how to use electricity in the garden without injuring ourselves in a talk from Paul Gregory, the local electrician. Then in November Rob Booth, the Living Landscapes Officer for Conwy and Gwynedd, talked to us about conservation work on nature reserves in the area. This was fascinating – understanding more about the importance of rough grazing, or learning about efforts to support the bats at Gwaith Powdr. Everyone enjoyed themselves enormously.

A quick note: we’ve changed the format of the website and blog slightly (it was the domain of Karen Hall, but as she is our Chairman at present, it has been delegated to Kate). All the recent events will be found on the blog, under the ‘home’ tab – and it should also be the landing page, the first page you see. The programme will be shown at the side (unless you’re viewing this on a mobile device), and can also be accessed via the relevant tab at the top. The other tabs contain information about the shows including – and this is important for the spring show – details of the daffodil classes. There’ll be some more developments coming up – watch this space!

Finally, let’s just have a quick picture of some lovely things most of us are beginning to see popping up in our gardens:

snowdrops