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.

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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.

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!

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, 

Summer Show, 2016

It’s been a very strange gardening year, and it’s continuing to be rather odd – so it was somewhat surprising that the show looked every bit as spectacular as usual last week. Or maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising: we have some very talented gardeners in the area, after all.

This year we had a new layout in the Hall, which was much appreciated. The appreciation started as we were setting up, when we realised just how cramped some things had become. Much more space!

setting up

It also was much better for the flowers, enabling everyone to get up close and personal to some wonderful things – and it was better for the judge and the steward in that section, as they no longer had to reach over plants and vases, or kneel down to get an adequate view. As usual, the hydrangeas were magnificent.

lacecap

The vegetables and fruit were in the middle of the room as usual, and – as usual – there were some stunning exhibits. These gorgeous onions not only won their category, they also won best in show for the fruit and vegetable section.

nionod

Then there’s the flower arranging. We had slightly fewer entries, but the standard was just as high.

elegant

The produce section is always popular, covering as it does everything from marmalade to wine and pickle to (this year) treacle tart. The judge was so blown away by the standard of the jams that he left a special note:

jam appreciation

and let’s not forget the crafts, where some competitors continued the floral theme:

flowers embroidery

A lovely show, and a lovely afternoon – even if we did emerge into rainy conditions worthy of October.

produce and flowers

Huge thanks to everyone who helped, especially to Bryan and Anita who are retiring as show organisers this year, to all the judges and stewards, to everyone who helped set up the night before, to the advertisers whose contributions helped pay for the programme – and, above all, to every single person who entered and visited our 2016 Summer Show.

Here’s a gallery of the day. Just click on an image for the usual slideshow.

The last garden visit of the year

Two members were brave and opened their gardens after some of the worst ‘summer’ weather for several years. However, despite an inauspicious misty / foggy start to the day, it soon brightened up and became so sunny that everyone visiting the gardens clustered together in the shade after they’d had a look round.

garden one

The two gardens have some similarities, and some major differences. One – this one – is higher than the other and more exposed; the other – below – is much bigger (at about 3 acres, all told) and has extensive planting of trees as well as a stream in one of its three meadows.

Garden two

Meadows are something they both have in common; so are growing vegetables and fruit. Here are some pictures from that lovely sunny afternoon – who knows when there’ll be another like it?

The first garden:

and the second:

Let’s hope we get the good weather back (and preferably without the high winds as well).

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!