Friday, 31 December 2010

Sedum Spectabile (31 DEC 2010)

Sedum Spectabile seemed to appear out of nowhere as they were in parts of the garden that I wasn't bothering to water. In the summer they had jade succulent leaves with red tips and flowers which turned baby-pink in the autumn. They seemed overcrowded, stems growing out sideways with just a couple upright, so I split them and planted them temporarily in five more places to give away as presents. They adapted to their new locations so easily, then after the first frost in October, the leaves turned a luminous yellow and the flowers deepened in colour to mauve, eye-catching in the rain-sodden garden. In November, they started to dry out and camouflaged well amongst the fallen leaves and now little jade buds are poking out of the snow, completing the cycle. Quite symbolic for this time of year, in short, I love everything about this plant.

I got worried when the leaves started turning yellow because I've seen specimens in other people's front gardens which are still green. It occurred to me that I might have split the plants too late in the year and maybe the frost had damaged the roots in the disturbed soil.  
I looked on the internet for pictures of sedum in winter but couldn't find any. I'm at ease now that the buds have appeared, I guess mine is a herbaceous variety. The advantage of this herbaceous plant, unlike others like Bleeding Heart which disappear completely above ground, is that the dead stems and flower heads stay intact and have their own beauty, marking the spot where rebirth will take place.

According to wikipedia, Sedum Spectabile (of Crassulaceae family – stone crops) has now been reclassified as Hylotelephium Spectabile. I can't find an explanation why. The Latin plant names don't deter me because I studied Latin at secondary school. The other options were Italian or German (Latin seemed the easiest for someone who is terrible at accents). The teacher looked just like my image of a Roman wearing sandals, dresses like tunics and her passion for the subject was infectious, to me at least. When I read Latin scripts, I felt a powerful connection with ancient civilisations at a time when I felt a misfit in my own. After Latin O'level, I thought I'd never use Latin again, having said that, it was a long time ago, and so far I haven't been successful in trying to translate my plant names. Latin translators don't seem to recognise them so I've come to the conclusion that these are not vocabulary that would have been recognised in Ancient Rome.

As I suspected, I've just found an article which explains that scientific plant (& animal) names are "latinized" (usually derived from people's names these days or even a Greek word). I still don't think learning Latin was a complete waste of time, because my connection with the ancients remains and I plan to use my garden as a channel to the past .... and to the future.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Dwarf Flowering Quince (24 DEC 2010)

This photo was taken in the middle of December after the first snow had melted. I first found this shrub entwined with a prolific bramble bush growing its thorny stems in coils and rescued it from strangulation. It was the small, salmon pink-coloured buds that caught my eye when I was spring-weeding. If I remember correctly, it flowered before the spring bulbs this year. The sight of its flowers made me broody and prompted my trip to Wilkinsons to buy packets of seeds. Then in the summer I spotted two yellow, round growths without stems, fused directly onto the inner branches. I'd never seen anything like it, decided they were parasitic, maybe poisonous, and threw them away without cutting them open to look for seeds.

Like the winter jasmine & skimmia, this was another low-growing shrub which was inconspicuous during the summer months. Now it continues to flower despite the heavy second snowfall.  I classified it by accident when I was researching fruit trees …..The only fruiting plants I have in this garden are brambles, raspberry bushes and an immature fig. I fancied the idea of growing a quince tree because it was favoured in ancient times and there's a risk it could die out because it's not so popular now. According to wikipedia, it's believed that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was actually a quince not an apple. The Ancient Romans cooked with quinces and used them to perfume the air. Ancient Greeks offered them in wedding rituals because they were linked to Aphrodite and brides used them to freshen their breath. In modern Europe, the hard, astringent fruit need to be bletted by frost or cooked to enhance apple pies with their aroma or make preserves. Anyway, I was googling quince and saw photos of familiar salmon pink flowers on bare branches which turned out to belong to a close relative dwarf flowering quince (chaenomeles from the rosaceae family). I am now kicking myself that I didn't even sniff the yellow growths before throwing them away. I'm left here imagining the aroma and wondering how the scent & flavour of apple pie could possibly be enhanced.

According to the Plants for a Future website, true quince is "analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent and digestive and a decoction is used internally in the treatment of nausea, joint pains, cholera and associated cramps". However, it doesn't clarify if dwarf quince has the same medicinal properties - botanists originally classified dwarf quince as a pear, then as a quince, then finally as a pear again with its own genus : chaenomeles. According to my Reader's Digest Encyclopaedia, there are two main species Japonica (from Japan) and Speciosa (from China). Both, like true quince, are self-pollinating, the fruit is more astringent and contains more pectin (good for preserves) than true quince. Not sure which one mine is. Japonica - because it's less than 1m tall (but that might be my pruning) or Speciosa - because it grew dark green, glossy leaves in the summer after flowering. None of the literature mentions flowering in December or in the snow.

Chaenomeles can be grown from seeds or by dividing off suckers in the winter. It's popular for bonsai because it has small flowers in proportion to the stunted branches, which is going to be one of my xmas holiday projects. I'll pull off a sucker and plant it as an instant bonsai tree for a gardener in the next generation to enjoy the characteristic crookedness it will hopefully develop if the roots and branches are pruned correctly. I've never thought of my experiments with plants as being a legacy before, in fact, they could be my only useful contribution to the progress of Planet Earth.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Dicentra (19 DEC 2010)

It's snowing again, just when the plants had recovered from the previous fall. Maybe it's Mother Nature's way of warning me for getting complacent about the effect of the bitterly cold conditions on my plants. Here's cineraria silver dust and dicentra (from the same family as carnations) resilient in the first snow and still perky after the thaw. I found boxes of them sitting next to each other on the sick plant shelf at B&Q and I planted them together. I didn't  expect them to last past autumn. It's an example of how a spontaneous purchase and ten minutes soil preparation resulted in plants to enjoy for months afterwards. If only I had made more little efforts,  I'd have a garden full of plants by now. Not sure if they will survive this recent snowfall though. I knew it was coming on Friday because my bones were cold, then yesterday the snow was driving down so heavily and icily that it hurt my eyes and my lips froze. I passed a man on the street walking backwards and nearly followed suite. It didn't stop me going for a long walk in the snow, battling the elements. The higher forces were trying to communicate with me and I had no choice but to listen after ignoring them for so long.

I remember the first time I thought of planting something was when I was a teenager and the family apple tree at my mum's home was struck by lightning. It literally is a member of the family, I've eaten those apples stewed with crumble topping and custard, every autumn,  for as long as I can remember being alive. Luckily the tree survived the lightning strike but it occurred to me that I should plant some of the seeds to ensure that future generations (of humans & maggots) could taste these cherished apples. I thought about it but didn't actually do it. Last year, nearly thirty years later, the tree was burnt by some rogue workmen who my mum paid to install a new garden shed. They burnt the remains of the old shed under the apple tree. Half of it now looks dead, but this year the other half produced a bumper crop with less maggots than usual. In fact the fruiting was so abundant that a heavily laden branch partially broke and dropped down to the ground, (luckily … or Naturally) the apples continued to ripen.

For what it's worth, one of my New Year's Gardening Resolutions is to concentrate on small actions that will make an impact long-term rather than short-term, eg. to plant something new every week instead of fastidiously weeding my patio. Even in my life it seems that series of little efforts have connected to make the biggest differences, more effectively than making big plans (soon abandoned when there are no immediate results). In recognition of this, and trying not to focus on the thirty wasted years (of tree-growing at least), there are now three apple seeds planted in frozen compost in my plastic greenhouse.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Broccoli (10 DEC 2010)

This post started off in memory of my plants that perished in December 2010 ….. because last week we had a heavy snowfall and I thought that the romanesco broccoli and foxgloves that I had raised from seed had died, a bit like having a miscarriage after an eight month pregnancy. (Sorry if this comparison seems excessive but gardeners will understand.) I tried to come to terms with it by convincing myself that Mother Nature must have her reasons for sending bad weather, just like she sends slugs, snails and foxes to challenge me and test my commitment.

Then at the weekend the snow started to melt, the sun shone and the plants miraculously perked up. It was such a surprise and I was so happy, that I forgot all my worries for a moment. I'm not sure if it was the novelty of gardening that caused this reaction or the feeling that higher forces were on my side (or rather the plants' side).  I never believed in God before experimenting with plants, everything in my life could be controlled by negotiation, hard work, money or visiting the doctor. I still don't believe in God in the sense of a moral guide but I have been worshipping in the temple of Mother Nature recently (at least whispering a quiet plea every now and then).

To put a cherry on top of the icing …. I thought I'd check what happened to the snail that was living inside one of the broccoli plants. I hadn't flicked it off as I usually do with snails, don't know why, maybe because it was just a baby one. I couldn't find the snail so I looked deeper into the paling green leaves and found what looked like a tiny broccoli floret (or curd as some people call it). I didn't probe it too much because I didn't want to disturb it. Needless to say I was overjoyed. Thank-you MN.

After this minor success, I've started making plans for next winter - I'm visualising a garden full of brassicas and snow. Brassicas are iron-rich and I'm anaemic so there could be health benefits. My mother has cavalo nero (dark green Italian cabbage) growing in her garden. She started growing them to eat because they are so expensive to buy in the shops (if you can find them), they look so beautiful first emerging  out of the ground horizontally then growing upwards like mini palm trees. I sowed some seeds from her plants in the autumn, but the seed tray is now covered in moss in the plastic greenhouse. My new policy in the garden is not to give up on plants so easily because there are apparently higher forces at work, so I'll leave the seed tray as it is and see what happens.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Pieris (03 DEC 2010)

I inherited this variegated pieris in a pot. I didn't water it for over a year (my excuse was that I was concentrating on DIY jobs, but since being enlightened I now realise that no DIY job is more important than gardening), it relied on the elements alone for sustenance. Even when I started gardening this spring it wasn't my top priority, but when my seeds were sown and bulbs planted, I decided to take ownership and pay some attention to my adoptees. The pieris seemed constrained so I de-weeded a spot in a border, dug in some compost and transplanted it there, where it almost doubled in size over the summer growing fresh coral-coloured foliage. Its reward initially was regular watering and then a promotion to the central bed in the autumn where it produced showers of flowers like cream-coloured beads strung on pink stems. A gardener couldn't wish for more from a plant !

Last week we had heavy frosts and this week snow. I felt guilty when I saw some plants wrapped in fleece coats as I walked along peeping into other people's front gardens. I never used to be so nosey, but now it's normal practice to ask a complete stranger how they managed to get their marigolds to flower a month longer than mine, or where they bought an unusual plant. I haven't been told to mind my own business yet, in fact the snow seems to make people more chatty. I knew snow was expected, but I did nothing to protect my plants (in my defence, I didn't know there was such a thing as a plant coat till this week). The pieris seems to be surviving, however, the half-hardy plants are in varying degrees of suffering and it's especially sad to see my broccoli & foxgloves wilting before they have had a chance to flower. Most of the autumn seedlings (babies of the summer annuals) in the plastic sheet greenhouse have died except the sweet peas which still look perky even though I dropped them by accident two weeks ago and the soil has now iced.

Despite the icy conditions destroying my plants, I imagine that the snow is somehow sanitising my garden, though it wouldn't surprise me to discover that slugs & snails have evolved to survive temperatures below zero. They have made their mark on almost everything that I planted this year, but they haven't totally destroyed anything yet. I actually find the foxes or squirrels more annoying (not sure which because I haven't found them red-pawed yet). At first, I thought they were digging up the soil randomly but I'm beginning to think they are targeting & stealing my spring bulbs because in some cases I can't find bulbs in the dug up areas where I'm sure I planted them. I've heard that a sprinkling of chilli powder or a stocking filled with balls of rolled-up human hair deters foxes, which seems appropriate considering they make me so upset that I could pull my hair out.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Skimmia (28 NOV 2010)

It took a bit of research to classify this shrub. I started by googling "photos of plants with red berries". The closest photo was gaultheria (wintergreen, teaberry) which, I was delighted to read, is a minty flavouring for ice-cream and chewing gum. It belongs to the ericaceae family (cranberry, blueberry, heathers & rhododendron are grouped under the same umbrella). However, there was a slight doubt in my mind because other pictures of gaultheria seemed to have racemes of flowers whereas my shrub has buds bunched close to the leaves.

I convinced myself that the only way to confirm the species was to chew a leaf. It had a strong medicinal taste and left a burning sensation on my tongue. After that I bit off a very tiny bit of berry but couldn't taste anything after the leaf, so I gave up on that trail and googled plants with red berries again. The next closest match was skimmia japonica, all parts of which "produce a pungent odour when crushed" and could "cause a stomach upset if ingested". Other pictures of skimmia showed varieties where the leaves, buds and berries seemed identical. However, male and female varieties were mentioned, the female shrubs only producing berries if a male is planted nearby, whereas my shrub stands alone. Looking up more articles, I discovered a self-fertilising  (monoecious) subspecies called reevsiana. A perfect match.

Therefore, I classified this shrub as skimmia japonica reevsiana. It, along with citrus fruit bearing plants, belongs to the family rutaceae. I had hardly noticed this evergreen shrub with its long-lasting flowers, berries and buds until now because it lay close to the ground next to an attention-seeking camellia bush. I decided to move it to my new central flower bed so it would have a more prominent position. As I dug it up, I noticed a white label sticking out - it read "skimmia ....". Maybe I'll check for labels before tasting next time.

On the subject of Experiments with Plants, this was not my original title for this blog. It was going to be Born-Again-Gardener (hence my profile name b-a-g) due to my renewed interest, however when I checked just in case anyone else happened to have the same idea, I found over 4000 entries. Every other title I could think of had already been used. In the end, I gave up trying to think of a unique title and settled to tell it like it is, which leaves me wondering : What can I possibly write about gardening which hasn't already been written? On the other hand, it's nice to know that there are so many like-minded people out there with similar thoughts, who share the same passion. All of the gardening blogs that I have read convey the message that gardeners are lovely people and I'm proud to be in their fellowship.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Winter Jasmine (20 NOV 2010)

I inherited a number of shrubs from the previous property-owner, Dorothy. I only met her twice when I viewed the house. As this was my first venture into house-buying, I had various anxieties but her calm approach to the process put me at ease. Even though many houses satisfied the short list of criteria in my head, there were criteria in my heart which were more difficult to define clearly. Apart from the usual considerations, the view of Dorothy's back garden from her dining room and the connection I felt with her were major contributors to my final decision to buy. The garden was neat and tidy though she admitted she hadn't been able to give it much attention in recent years due to her arthritis.

One of my favourite books as a child was The Secret Garden and I now I have my own. The weedy, paved front area can hold two cars. Initially there were two stone pots planted with spring bulbs parked there. I emptied and moved them to the back because I wanted the front to be bare, not giving a clue that the house with a cracked fascade was owned by a gardener. I can't remember the exact day when I started calling myself a gardener, maybe it was in me all along just waiting for a garden to need me. It was tempting to buy new plants to fill the beds and create an impressive display, but that would have been too easy. Instead, the back garden is a work-in-progress of my experiments with plants.

I relished the challenge of resurrecting the neglected garden. I decided to keep the original structure, the broken fish-shaped bird bath and all the plants that Dorothy left me. Last year I just weeded around them and dealt with the wisteria strangling the cherry blossom, which I didn't detect until I saw lilac flowers cascading down from the cherry blossom branches. I hacked back the wisteria so hard that I thought I had killed it. It only produced one stem of flowers this year but at least it's still alive and now under control. This year I started pruning, dividing and re-positioning plants to distribute them more evenly depending on their size and seasonality. I can't believe how forgiving they are, there hasn't been a casualty yet, including this plant which I have classified as winter jasmine. Looking up photos of yellow-flowered plants on the internet, this is the closest comparison based on the flowering time, colour, shape, number of petals and the shape of the bush. I pruned it back severely in the summer because it didn't seem that interesting, I wanted to make room for the annuals and its haphazard stems were getting in the way. Little did I know that it would be one of the few plants in flower at this time of the year. Like many of Dorothy's shrubs, the core of this bush is dead wood. I'm currently investigating which plants can be cut down completely to remove the dead wood and allow them to be born again.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Foxgloves (13 NOV 10)

I can't think of a scenario when I planned an event at least 15months before its due date. Back in March, I grabbed a packet of foxgloves seeds without much thought in a 3for2 offer when I bought pot marigold and thyme seeds to germinate in my kitchen. If I had taken time to read about biennials on the back of the packet, I would have probably chosen something else because I didn't have the patience to wait for flowers next year.

At that time, I was under the impression that small seeds would have a greater failure rate compared to large seeds. That's why I planted one marigold seed each and pinches each of thyme & foxgloves seeds in the cavities of three seed trays.

The pot marigold seedlings grew quickly and I planted them outside to fend for themselves within 6 weeks. On the other hand, the thyme and foxgloves germinated easily and then stopped growing due to overcrowding I suppose. As the seedlings were too delicate to split apart, I had to keep re-planting them in bunches until I could handle them singly. This procedure killed a few hundred of them. I eventually planted the thyme in two pots of ten. I kept one pot and gave the other to Mrs F.  When the weather warmed up I left my pot outside but was rather upset the next day to find that all the plants had been dug out. Only one plant had enough soil clinging to it to survive and it's now a mini-bush.

It was similar story with the foxgloves except that the leaves were more delicate so I kept them indoors till June. By then I had trayfuls of these seedlings in damp soil on my kitchen counter and it was becoming unhygienic. I planted ten in my garden, gave some away (people weren't really interested when I informed them that they wouldn't flower till next year) and with great regret threw the rest into my garden waste bag.

The foxgloves' rosettes of arching leaves are now huge (compared to the tiny seeds anyway) and are competing with the broccoli to win the award for most handsome plants in my autumn garden. Surprisingly, the slugs & snails don't find them so attractive. They seem to hold so much promise (not just of the flowers they may produce) and I can't explain the feeling of anticipation when I look at them.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Broccoli (07 NOV 2010)

I once watched a repeat of Geoff Hamilton's Ornamental Kitchen Garden TV program, it was like I had discovered a kindred spirit. I was disappointed to find out that he had died. His philosophy was to grow vegetables organically amongst flowering plants. This confuses pests apparently.

I didn't intend to become an organic gardener. When I started in March, bought a bottle of fertiliser when I went shopping for compost. Never used it because it didn't feel like the right thing to do. The plants are growing fine without it so far as the garden hasn't been fully functional. Probably need to enrich the soil somehow next year though. Now that the leaves are falling, it seems sensible to return their goodness back to the soil rather than throw them away.

Geoff advised a pond of frogs would keep the snail & slug population under control. I haven't started digging a pond yet but I did plant romanesco broccoli amongst my flowers in the summer. Since the annuals died, the broccoli have flourished and now they are the highlights of the garden. Even though they keep getting attacked by slugs, snails and birds (assuming that slugs & snails aren't capable of ripping leaves to shreds), they continue to thrive. I keep checking for the conical-shaped florets because I am curious to see how they form - only found a baby snail so far. Broccoli is sometimes called winter cauliflower so maybe there's hope yet.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Cosmos (30 OCT 2010)

On 21OCT I had to scrape ice off my car windscreen. I realised that the routine of checking on the progress of my flowers after work was over.  The first noticeable effect of the frost in the garden was that the cosmos petals crumpled. I'll miss the cosmos swaying gracefully in the wind and brightening up the autumn scene. Mrs. F had given them to me as seedlings. I'd looked them up in an encyclopaedia but I never expected them to grow  as big as they did so quickly and flower so prolifically. Life goes on in my little plastic sheet greenhouse because the seeds they produced have germinated into seedlings completing the cycle. They might have a chance of surviving the winter if my greenhouse doesn't get blown over.

I have now cut down all the annuals even though they weren't completely dead. I couldn't bear to watch them dying. I left the roots in the soil just in case there's a chance that they might re-generate next year. The snails & slugs will have to find new hiding places and I'm sure they will. It was sad to see the borders empty but on the other hand the canvas is blank and I can make plans for the spring.

As this is my first year of proper gardening I didn't get my timing right. I eagerly started planting bulbs in September : crocuses in the grass and tulips & daffodils where soil was showing in the borders. Then at the beginning of October I saw bulbs on sale so I planted some more. Now I can't remember what's planted where and when I dig around I usually fork a few bulbs in the process. I'm not sure if a forked bulb will heal itself but I'll find out in about 6 months. Lesson learnt for next year is that I'll plant bulbs in groups after cutting the annuals.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Edible Fig (24 OCT 2010)

Before I started gardening, when I felt down, used to treat myself to a chocolate bar. Now I go to B&Q or Wilkinsons and buy sick plants from the reduced items shelf. This edible fig and bedding plants are examples of my comfort purchases. The fig was a yellow shoot when I bought it. Just un-potting it that day, shaking off the old soil, setting it in fresh compost and watering it in was so therapeutic  (for both of us), let alone watching it turn greener and greener, sprout leaves and grow a twiggy stem over the summer.

Fig is one of my favourite fruits. It's also one of the earliest cultivated fruits going back to ancient times - I like the idea of facing the same challenge as a neolithic man trying to find the ideal position for his fig tree. I was thinking about growing it from a dried fig seed but then I saw this plant.

I think I need to dig it up though because I read that figs fruit better if the roots are confined to a small space. (My bible on gardening matters is Reader's Digest Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants & Flowers 2nd edition 1978). Its recommended to line the planting hole with bricks or plant it in a pot to prevent root overgrowth. There are various ways to train fruit trees - apparently figs grow well fan-trained (ie. pruned so they grow flat along wires) against a south-facing wall, but I'm going to pot this one and leave it to grow naturally on my patio. 

Saturday, 16 October 2010

16 OCT 2010

This is a canary creeper hanging from my other washing line pole - another plant from Mrs. F. The flowers really look like little canaries about to land from flight. While morning glory climbs by winding up objects with its main stem, canary creeper climbs more randomly by wrapping its small side shoots around thin objects. It kept deviating into the bushes so I attracted it to the pole with a wire mesh. Thought it was dying because the bottom of the plant turned dry and brittle but the top end is still flowering, producing small green, fleshy fruits. At first I didn't realise that over-watering can sometimes encourage a plant to continue growing rather than produce flowers. This was particularly true for canary creeper and cosmos.

Last year I didn't water my garden at all.  I used to think that watering was one of the more boring gardening jobs and didn't have the patience to do it, but it's totally different when you've nurtured plants yourself and watched them grow day-by-day. This summer I watered gladly nearly everyday.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

09 OCT 2010

After my outdoor seed-sowing mostly failed, I decided to germinate seeds indoors at the end of March. I knew what to do because my mother is a gardener, but I didn't realise the thrill of seeing a little speck of green in the soil where I had poked in a seed. It took two weeks before there were any signs of germination, I didn't expect anything to happen because I wasn't sure if I was watering them correctly or if they were warm enough. Then it happened and it was almost magical the way the seeds all germinated at the same time.

This is one of the results - morning glory which I chose for its blue flowers. The seedlings turned yellow and died except for this one which struggled for a while, but after it started growing its true leaves, it spiralled quickly and evenly up my washing line pole without any guidance. The delicate flowers open in the morning and fade in the evening.

The leaves reminded me of the bindweed which attempted to strangle many of my plants last year. Unfortunately, I have just found out that morning glory is in the same family as bindweed (convolvulaceae). As I have decided not to use artificial weed-killers or fertilisers (until I'm forced to at least), I controlled the bindweed this year by raking the undergrowth in the spring and keeping it clear. I think the best solution for weeds is to plant lots of plants.

Saturday, 2 October 2010


Started gardening (again) on 02MAR10.

Planted sunflower, poppy & sweet pea seeds and gladioli & oriental lily bulbs directly into the soil outdoors. Not sure what happened to the sunflowers & poppies but the rest grew and flowered in the summer. No skill required just watering.

Mr. F told me to watch out for slugs. At that point I decided that I wouldn't sprinkle slug pellets over the garden as advised. Double-planted instead - half for the slugs and half for me.

After their visit in May, Mrs. F gave me some seedlings. I planted them in a pot and left them in a corner.  They are now distributed over the whole garden replacing all the weeds which thrived last year.

This is one of seventeen nicotiana lime green grown from Mrs F's seedlings. Each one grew to maturity and developed its own personality. Had to transplant them several times as I kept underestimating how big they would grow. Think this traumatised them in the summer heat as they would raise their leaves up to cover the inner shoots. They all survived though.
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