Battling with the borders

How to keep gardening!

This was the subject of our September meeting, a talk from Karen Hall. The question asked was ‘what happens to a garden when a gardener can no longer garden?’ Karen demonstrated that it is not so much a question of no longer being able to garden at all, but of being able to garden differently – of adapting. She went on to look at the best ways to produce something which looks wonderful by minimising the effort involved. Lawns are often an issue, for instance, and turning a lawn into a meadow – intersected with a few paths and mown once a year – is one solution:

And there were many others that were useful, like using more shrubs than perennials.

Here are more tips. Try:

  • Having fewer varieties
  • Using plants which thrive in similar conditions
  • Planting in drifts or blocks
  • Planning your planting in layers
  • and keeping human intervention to a minimum.

But can this work? Most certainly. Karen’s focus is on design and planting and not equipment, so her suggestions were all about planning and not about long-handled tools, and she introduced the subject of matrix planting – of creating ‘self-sustaining communities in gardens by bringing together plants that meld with one another in a balance’. In short, of creating something which reflects a natural ecosystem through those layers of planting. Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer, was cited as an example – wildish planting contained within mown lawns (precise edges make everything look better):

And he has described matrix planting as being like ‘a good fruitcake studded with treats’. His gardens embody so many of the hints above, with their layers of planting and use of drifts. Admittedly the lawns and hedges are not particularly low maintenance, but it does give an idea of what can be possible. Inspiring!

Photographing the wild

Our February meeting saw the welcome return of Alan Price, the award-winning local wildlife photographer whose visit a couple of years ago was such a success. Alan’s work is always inspiring, and he regularly wins prestigious competitions. This, for instance, took first prize in 2018’s International Garden Photographer of the Year, in the ‘celebrating oaks’ category:

Alan’s shots of wildlife – usually taken very locally, frequently in his garden and often from the Cob in Porthmadog – are fabulous. The work involved in setting up situations which can result in photographs like this one of a jay

has to be meticulous. Patience is also required – bucket loads of patience. And then there is luck, being in the right place at just the right time, and ready to shoot. No matter what preparation has been done, there’s always an element of luck, of perfection, of recognising what Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’. Here’s one of young swallows being fed which made everyone gasp:

Brilliant. And the red of the runner bean flowers is a perfect note.

Ah yes, back to patience and preparation. Even when working with subjects like these brown-lipped snails:

Finally, Alan often works with extreme detail. This amazing shot of a starling’s head won a silver in the ‘detail’ category last year in the International Bird Photographer of the Year competition. Look at all these colours!

More of Alan’s photographs can be found on his website.

What, Which, Who…

Our January meeting was the ever-popular quiz session. Divided into teams by drawing cards, we soon settled down to ponder such mysteries as which garden Siouxie and Banshees sang about, what word linked an artichoke and the WI, and the French name for the dandelion.*

Time to try a few. Answers below.

• Which garden in literature was restored by a little girl who came to England from India?

• Ground elder (ugh)

is a huge problem for the gardener but, having dug it up, what could you do with the leaves?

• What word links an antirrhinum and the Welsh emblem?

• Which tree yields the small fruit which can be used to flavour gin?

• Which part of the vanilla orchid is dried for use as a culinary flavouring?

• Hydrangeas are usually described as one of two types. Mophead

and.. what?

• Which terrifying plants were created by John Wyndham in 1951?

• Which grain is used to make semolina?

• A tall tale, joke or excuse too-often repeated is referred to as a what?

• What do lacewings feed upon?

• What three coniferous trees are native to Britain?

• What do laburnum seeds

and mistletoe berries have in common?

We had a great time, what with questions covering everything from Bill and Ben and Madison Square Garden to whether an elephant apple was a real thing (nope) and the percentage of water in a watermelon (92%, incidentally). This was not the, er, quietest of meetings, with our chair forced to emulate John Bercow and attempt to shut us us with much use of the gavel. It didn’t work.


*Hong Kong Garden, Jerusalem and pissenlit – in case you were wondering…
1. The Secret Garden
2. Eat them, apparently – raw, cooked or made into soup. Dim diolch…
3. Dragon
4. Blackthorn or quickthorn
5. The seed pod
6. Lacecap
7. Triffids
8. Wheat
9. An old chestnut
10. Aphids
11. Yew, Scots Pine, Juniper
12. They’re both poisonous…

Bulb time

Our September meeting was timely – a talk on bulbs from Stan Mahom, whose Carno nursery specialses in them. Sepetember is now their busiest time of the year, so it was good to have him come and talk to us. And what is more, he bought some for us to buy.

This year, there’s a shortage, largely down to the weather. And snowdrops are particularly scarce, not just the extraordinarily expensive rare bulbs. In the wild they are now rare, and are classed as endangered (by CITES) in places like Turkey. That’s because of a combination of plunder for cultivation and habitat destruction. But it’s not all doom and gloom, and Stan took us through various bulbs, with lots of interesting snippets about each one.

Did you know, for instance, that crocuses are a member of the iris family, and that the earliest representation of a crocus dates back to the Bronze Age (Minoan frescos on Santorini and Crete)?

Continuing the archaological theme, irises have an association with death, and were planted on graves in Ancient Greece. But these could be planted in our gardens:

Here’s another astonishing bulb fact: over 3 million tulip bulbs are sold each year in the UK. (Some to us, after the talk.)

Queen of Night, the almost-black tulip which is so popular, is an enduring favourite: it was introduced almost 125 years ago, in 1895. Like QoN, most are cultivated varieties, although species tulips are growing in popularity (there are only 75 wild species, apparently).

What about hyacinths? Well, Stan’s nursery no longer sell hyacinths forced for Christmas flowering. The bulbs are temperature-treated so that they think they ‘have’ to flower and get very top heavy (we’ve almost all had ‘floppy-hyacinth’ disorder). He recommends ordinary garden hyacinths – they are stockier and more compact and don’t fall over. For a display, he recommends growing the bulbs separately and then merging those showing the same level of growth (and for the Spring Show, they need to be planted around Christmas and kept cool).

Then Stan gave us a timely tip: Get the biggest bulbs you can afford, as they will give you the best results. Prepack bulbs are usually second quality – smaller bulbs – so be aware of that.

And there were some beauties for us to choose from, too.

Many thanks to Stan Mahom for an interesting evening.

Painting flowers

This month our meeting was to feature a talk and demonstration on painting the flowers we all love. Unfortunately our speaker had to cancel at the last minute … but we still had our talk because Glenys Lawson stepped into the breach. Her enthusiasm (and commentary) was infectious.

She had set out an easel, some paints – including some test pots from Wilko, because, as she said, she will paint with anything. Acrylics in this case, as she had a painting to finish in 45 minutes. And talk about the process at the same time.

She had already prepared an outline of some irises:

Which she then proceeded to fill in, gradually working on the background, building up the layers and working hard at getting the colours of the irises right (difficult in the lighting of the hall),

Here’s the process:

and the (almost) finished painting:



Wine and gardening (honestly)

For February, we had something different – a wine tasting, led by Dylan of Dylanwad in Dolgellau. There is a link, honestly there is: so much about the final wine is dependent on things we gardeners are quite familiar with: soil, weather, climate… all can have an impact on the end results.

Dylan took us on a tour of some of his favourite vineyards, illustrating the point – the soil here, for instance, hardly fits the word, being mostly stony:

Vine roots can go down as far as 12 to 15 metres in very dry circumstances (such as around Jerez in southern Spain), and the grapes grow low to the ground. But there are other things to consider, like pruning, and here again Dylan illustrated different systems.

Now for the tasting. First came three white wines, fresh and citrussy,

including one Welsh wine, from near Monmouth. They would have been perfect on a summer’s day; the winter night was perhaps more suited to the three reds:

which included an interesting one from Moldova.

Dylan asked a question, one he says he often asks when doing events like this, and to which he never gets a positive response: did anyone grow grapes? Several hands went up. And had anybody made wine from their grapes? Yes, one of us had – a first. Wine and gardening: the link is confirmed. And definite!

Many thanks to Dylan for an entertaining, informative and enjoyable evening.

Late summer colour

In gardening, ‘late summer’ traditionally meant August. Nowadays, though, that could be anything up to early October, and there’s little doubt that we are  experiencing a longer growing season. As Karen Hall said in her September talk, ‘it’s important that our gardens don’t run out of steam by July’.

She gave us some wonderful examples of plants which can really help.

(This is Rudbeckia Herbstone.) Rudbeckias and Heleniums are brilliant for this, and Rudbeckias in particular can continue to look good even after their petals have dropped. And both, like this yellow Helenium, are popular with wildlife…

Another favourite is Echinacea, and particularly the old species E. purpurea. They need good drainage, and don’t like being crowded by other plants.

This can be grown from seed; they’ll flower in their first year if sown early enough in the spring.

Karen’s special loves are the Salvias, and when you look at examples like this one,

which is Royal Bumble, it’s easy to understand why. Salvias can flower for months, and one of the secrets, Karen said, is not to cut the shrubby ones down in autumn. Wait until the spring, when they have started into growth, and cut them back to a low green shoot. This is at the top of Karen’s list:

It’s Salvia Hadspen. And as long as Salvias aren’t standing in wet soil over winter, they should cope (unless the winter is unusually cold, that is).

Ornamental grasses look wonderful with many of the late-season plants we were shown. But they also look pretty stunning by themselves:

Now we have no excuses!

Thank you, Karen, for your inspiring talk – and your even more inspiring images, showing us just what can be achieved!