The best gardens in Wales…

Our May meeting saw the BBC broadcaster and writer Tony Russell take us on a whirlwind tour of some of his personal favourites among Welsh gardens. He is also a coordinator for the North Wales Festival of Gardens, started last year, and many of the ones he chose were, ressuringly, in the north.

Plas Brondanw, image courtesy of gardenvisit.com

But not all… One of his personal favourites is Dyffryn, now run by the National Trust, near Cardiff, which has superb summer borders.

Dyffryn Gardens, image courtesy The National Trust

and there are other gardens for all seasons, such as the Dingle, great for autumn colour,

The Dingle, again from gardenvisit.com

and Erddig, near Wrexham, which he thinks is at its best in winter ‘when you can really see the structure of the garden’, with its topiary and pleached limes.

And there are also gardens reflecting all periods and types of garden design, from Dyffryn’s grand-tour-inspired recreation of a Pompeiian garden to modern designs such as those at Veddw. Really, we are very lucky – and many members will have left the meeting with a whole new appreciation of the sheer variety of wonderful Welsh gardens. And with lots of prospective visits in mind!

 

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Wild in the garden

Our February meeting took place on one of the wildest nights of the winter – and what a great evening it was, too. Our speaker, Alan Price of Gatehouse Studio, came to talk to us about photographing the wildlife in our gardens. He has won and been shortlisted for many awards and showed us an amazing range of 100 images, all taken in his own garden. Inspirational, particularly as he pointed out that you don’t need a big garden to achieve amazing results.

And, since a picture paints a thousand words (but with a few hints and tips)…

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Blue tits in snowdrops. The snowdrops were placed on a bird table with crunched up peanuts at the base of the flowers – crunch the nuts up, and the birds will eat them in situ. For Alan, the key to success is a bird table like this, strategically dressed to tempt wildlife, using a hide (or even the house or shed as a hide), and having infinite reserves of patience. He repeatedly stressed the need to wait for things to happen, and here’s another example of what can result when you do:

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Bank vole and blackberry. There are many voles and mice in Alan’s garden, and this shot was created by carefully placing the blackberries near an entrance hole, and waiting. So careful and considered observation is also a key – know your garden.

Sometimes a little careful help gets the shot.

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This beautiful slow worm (no, it’s not a snake; it’s a slow worm – a legless lizard, essentially) was found in the garden and carefully photographed in a glass bowl before being released.

This tiger moth was also carefully placed in the studio for photography, and then released. It was caught in a moth box put out on a summer evening, something Alan recommends. Moths are stunning – they’re not all ‘little brown jobs’. Not at all!

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Fabulous!

A few more notes: Alan has a background in graphic design (you can tell), and stresses a few things relating to design when taking a photograph: the need to keep it simple, the need to plan – to have a preconceived idea of what you want – and the need for careful set dressing. On a more technical level, he uses a Nikon 7100 with a 300mm prime lens, and works at high speeds. He’ll use a central focus and crop afterwards, and – one last tip – says always focus on the eyes of your subject when photographing wildlife.

Gardeners’ Questions

A couple of years ago the first meeting of the year was our version of gardeners’ question time, and it was very popular. Since then we’ve all had time to come up with lots more garden problems, so we had another session with three local experts as our panellists.

We had a range of queries. How, for example, can you ensure narcissi, especially the multi-flowered ones, look their best at the spring show?

show bench

Several useful tips emerged. Firstly, do not use jam jars, go for narrow vases instead. Secondly, don’t pick them in the middle of the day – evening is best – and cut the stems at a 45-degree angle, on the green and not the white. Then condition them: put them in deep cold water, by themselves (narcissi sap can affect other things); keep them at the same temperature they are likely to be in the Hall, and use a flower food as a supplement.

Other questions covered fuschias which appeared to be dying (possibly the result of recent weather as the stems were green; give them more air as it could be a form of mildew) and alternatives to box because of the blight issue (Euonymous fortuneii ‘happiness’; Lonicera nitida).

The question of roses got several people involved, as they can be tricky round here.

rose

That’s partly because of our very clean air, which seems paradoxical – but all black-spot diseases are indicators of good-quality air… There are some which do well, however, and the rose which clambers up the front of the Vic in Llanbedr was commented upon. It’s a climber called Cliff Richard, and it receives a really early, heavy, annual prune, right back to the framework (it’s been pruned like this for year after year). It also gets feed and manure at the base, so that’s worth emulating.

A few more. Does scarifying a lawn do any good when it comes to moss? Well, it can spread it, because moss is another thing which flourishes in our warm, wet local climate – and the general conclusion was that scarifying keeps you fit, but is probably unlikely to help a lot. Two of the panel recommended lawn sand, but essentially the feeling was that trying to eliminate moss round here (unless you’re dealing with sports turf) is a way of exercising and little else. Scarifying does, however, break up the thatch that forms.

If you buy plants from a garden centre, is it good practice to pick the flower head out to encourage better growth? Yes, definitely.

It’s just about time for all the Clematis montanas to flower round here, and there are some wonderful ones. So when is the best time to prune one, and how much should you take it down?

montana

Generally, agreed the panel, they shouldn’t be cut but (and the questioner’s C. montana has spread into nearby trees) one can stand a hard prune, and it won’t kill it; it will just break out again. Timing? well, the next couple of months. And newer varieties are not as bonkers as the older ones…

We had a thoroughly informative evening. Huge thanks to our panel, Guy, Reg and Sheena, and enormous thanks to the members who provided such a range of questions – far more than can be covered here.

Festive flower arranging

Every year there’s a meeting devoted to flower arranging, and these are always popular. Despite the vile weather this time (thick, thick fog), many members gathered to hear and learn from our expert tutor, Dorothy. There was a box of interesting foliage – which she had gathered from one of the local gardens – waiting to tantalise us.

foliage

The foliage had been soaking, outdoors in buckets, for three days.

Dorothy covered many basic tips – when using candles, make sure the wicks are always straight to avoid disaster when lit and don’t forget to leave the area immediately around the candle free of anything that might catch; always wrap a mossed wreath ring in plastic to keep it moist – and demonstrated some beautiful arrangements which were raffled at the end of the evening. This, not unnaturally, caused something of a late run on raffle tickets.

It is fascinating watching how a display starts out

display 1

with the sensitive use of props. And then it builds,

display2

using some of that beautiful foliage – eucalyptus is particularly useful here for its grey-green colour (and the undersides are also spectacular, so Dorothy sometimes uses the twigs the other way up). And the display continues to grow and change:

growing

Dorothy then went on to add flowers, and gave us many more useful pieces of advice:

  • Take most of the leaves off roses because they take up too much water and the flowers suffer, and also remove the thorns
  • Always cut stems at an angle; they take up more water and are also easier to insert in oasis that way.
  • Condition the stems of long roses in hot water; for shorter roses, just use tap water and always, always recut them. The water should be deep but not right up to the heads.
  • For demonstations and transport to things like shows, always tape the oasis:

taped oasis

A few more tips:

  • Cut leaves off, don’t pull them
  • When you cut a stem that might show, use a spare leaf and rub it over the cut – the green from the leaf will camouflage the raw white of the cut.
  • If you want to use gold, silver or copper spray – do it outside!

Finally, and on a really seasonal note, baubles are interesting additions to seasonal displays. Dorothy mounts them on wooden skewers which are hidden by the foliage – and are completely invisible:

bauble in use

Thank you, Dorothy!

With apologies for the colour quality of the photographs – something about the green and the lighting in the hall didn’t work brilliantly.

Gardening by the sea

Our September meeting focused on something which concerns most of us round here to some degree – trying to garden effectively within sight of the sea. Quentin Deakin is from Cambrian Coast Gardens in Tywyn, and himself lives within 150 metres of the coast, so he knows the problems: high winds, salt, sand, intense rain, intense sunshine…

But there are advantages too. By and large, coastal climates are milder, with cleaner air, good levels of sunshine and seaweed available as a fertiliser (only in moderation, see below). He tests various things in his own garden, and is using Rosa rugosa

rosa rugosa

as a hedge, though he is also experimenting with tamarisk, pruned to shape. Windbreaks, as he stressed, are essential – he pointed to the way trees will grow better close to the coast when protected by something like the gable end of a ruined farm building – and density of planting can also help.

When it comes to plant choices that will cope with the demands of a seaside garden, Mr Deakin stressed the value of looking at wild plants that flourish in our environment, whether that’s things like sea pinks,

sea pinks

seen here on the Mawddach Trail, or various sedums and sempervivums,

which can do very well indeed. What other plants are worth thinking about? Well, among others, buddleias and hydrangeas (he suggested some of the more unusual varieties) can cope, as can grasses (Zebra grass generally stays upright, often in the face of high winds) and things like cordylines. He also recommended chokeberry, and pointed out that cotton lavender often thrives as well. He has had success with hollyhocks, somewhat out of fashion at the moment, but spectacular, and with all sorts of sea hollies. He brought along one, E. agavifolium,

which went onto the raffle table and led to more ticket sales! (the photograph is courtesy of Beth Chatto gardens, who have it for sale… just saying, for those who didn’t win the raffle).

Footnote: using seaweed.
The collection of seaweed is illegal, but the laws are really designed to stop commercial, widescale depletion; the key, says Quentin Deakin, is not to be greedy. You have to rinse the salt off or expose it to rain, and then let it rot down, either in the compost bin (in smaller quantities) or in its own bin – he generally keeps seaweed separate. It can be used as a concentrated fertiliser. dug in to the soil in January or February, 

Travelling to Colombia

ColombiaBleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones have been plant hunting for many years now (in the spirit of the nineteenth-century explorers, if not – thank heavens – with their rapacious techniques). And this month we were privileged to have Bleddyn come and speak to us about their recent trip to Colombia.

Most of us probably had rather hazy ideas about the country – not realising, perhaps, just how large it is (roughly twice the size of France) or how varied the countryside is, or how much of it is at an altitude which can make working difficult, or just how very hot it can be. (And when we think of Welsh settlers in South America, we automatically think of Patagonia, but now we know that there are people of Welsh origin in Colombia too.)

We can also understand a bit more about the amazing flora…

extraordinary

Bleddyn had helpfully come equipped with plant lists, which were useful. The one thing that stunned us all was the sheer size of some of the plants at lower altitudes; putting people in the photographs really gave an astonishing impression. But even higher up, some (like the Espeletias above) were enormous. Not all though; we were shown a pretty mat-forming geranium, G. sibbaldioides, which as ‘an inch tall, at best’.

We learned a bit about the realities of a plant-hunting expedition: getting licences, the perils of poisonous seeds, the methodical approach needed. A good day ends not in a big supper but in processing and recording. Plant material is stored in Ziploc bags; dried seeds in paper. Records are made of the altitude, any companion plants; all necessary details are noted down, and then each collected item is given an accession number. Of course, it’s essential to collect ripe seed, and we learned that a vital tool is a telescopic pole with a sharp hook on the end. And that, even so, some plants can be quite uncooperative.

It was very impressive – and so were the plants we were shown. In Colombia even the street planting, apparently, is spectacular. ‘It’s so easy to grow things there’, said Bleddyn. Lucky them!

How to – choose compost, sow seeds, pot on, take cuttings…

Our February meeting was amazingly well attended, given that Storm Imogen was raging outside to such an extent that the local railway line, battered by the sea, had featured on national news earlier in the day. We were all keen to learn what we could from Guy Lloyd, who was ‘demonstrating garden practices’, as the programme said. It was a great meeting, full of laughter and comments and plants – and lots of great information. But first, look at some of the beauties in flower in Guy’s garden:

in flower

Lovely.

We started with compost, and a discussion of what could be found in some multipurpose brands (stones, glass, a sock) now that they contain much more recycled material. Later on, Guy mentioned riddling compost when planting out – really important now that there is so much miscellaneous stuff in some of the composts we buy. There were also some great tips to bear in mind when buying and using it, including:

  • compost goes off, so don’t keep it too long or buy bags that have obviously been hanging around all winter. Soon it will bear a ‘best before’ date, and that is why.
  • don’t buy bags from the top of the pile, because they will have been exposed to sun and rain and won’t be so good either.
  • always close the bag properly when you’ve been using compost.

Then we moved on to seed sowing,

sowing seeds

where we also learned many useful things – such as the importance of riddling that compost (it breaks it down, as well as filtering out the rubbish) and that it’s best to order seeds from seedsmen rather than buying them in a shop as there’s no guarantee that they will be at their freshest, or will have been kept properly. We also learned to use small trays for germination of the smaller seeds (and to mix the very fine ones with silver sand first – as one member said, ‘you can see it then’); to flick seeds which were too close together apart with a pencil or label; and to cover the seeds (where specified) with compost put through a finer riddle. And then to water them by soaking them from below.

But the one thing which we all learned was how neat and tidy and perfect the sown seed boxes looked – whatever the size – when the tray was finished off with a ‘striker’: a straight piece of wood gently passed over the pots or tray to remove excess compost. Judging by the looks that were exchanged, we’re all going to be doing that.

Next came pricking out and potting on…

pricking out

Here Guy stressed several things:

  • to tease the little seedlings apart gently and only handle them by the leaves, never the stems,
  • to be ruthless and only prick out the best, choosing the healthiest ones and discarding any which are weak or damaged,
  • and not to force the stems down into the compost.

Propagating followed, and there were cries of pain from the audience as Guy took cuttings form some lovely plants (there was even a suggestion that one should be hidden so he couldn’t get at it). Root cuttings were covered too, which was something most of us had either not attempted or had only dabbled in. Guy had brought along an ideal candidate, this Acanthus mollis:

root cuttings 1

Why take root cuttings, asked Guy, when you can split plants like these? The answer for some plants was really clear: take phlox, for instance. Eelworm just love phlox, and if you divide a plant, you move the eelworms too; with a root cutting, you don’t (the same would apply to any plant which had become infested with something like oxalis). He demonstrated two types of root cutting – the thicker ones, like the acanthus, and ones with finer, more thread-like roots. For the first, he took a piece of root – pencil thickness – and cut it into sections with a flat cut at the top and a sloping one at the bottom. These were then inserted into cutting medium (2 x peat, 1 x grit, 1 x pearlite) so that the tops were just exposed above the surface of the compost. The second, finer roots, were simpler: you just lie sections of root flat over the medium, then cover them with a little compost and they’ll throw up baby plants.

It was a great evening – so much taught, so much gained in terms of information, encouragement, and inspiration. Thank you, Guy!

samples

Now where are those secateurs? Root cuttings call!