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,

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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.

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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!

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!

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…)