Sunday, 30 January 2011

Hellebores (30 JAN 2011)

In late autumn, when the excitement of the flowering season was over and I was taking stock, I saw this sprawling mess of leaves in the suntrap area of my garden and thought that I should get rid of this plant, and its partner growing in the shade, at the soonest opportunity. I had never watered them and didn't know their name. They were out of proportion with the rest of my garden, were taking up a lot of ground space and were an ideal hiding place for slugs & snails. I had vowed that I would keep all of the plants that Dorothy had left me but these were more weeds than garden plants, surely. I just needed to find something to replace them.
Then it snowed and I hoped that Mother Nature would do me a favour, but she didn’t.

A couple of weeks ago, I was inspecting fox damage in my garden, when I spotted a pinkness amongst the leaves. Nestled in the centre where the leaves splayed apart were dark pink buds in one and pale pink in the other, which just goes to show it's all about timing sometimes, by beating the spring bulbs they captured my attention. I took a quick photo and asked Mr. F at work if he could identify it. Being a lawnsman, he didn't have a clue, but he printed it out to ask Mrs. F that evening. At the printer, he met a woman who gave her diagnosis.    "Oi, Big Nose – it's a weed" he declared as he returned to his desk, which I accepted.

The next day Mrs. F reported that it was "Lenten Rose, Hellebore - a lovely plant".   

The morals of this story are :
(1) Don't take advice from women you happen to meet at the works printer, not about gardening anyway.
(2) Have faith in your wife, especially if she is a gardening expert.
(3) Even the ugliest amongst us can shine if we pick the right moment to flower. (I just made this up, but I'm sure there's something that can be learnt from the hellebore.)

I looked up hellebores on the internet to classify my sub-species and found :   
Hellebores are from the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and fall into two main categories stemmed and stemless. They say that most plants bought in garden centres are likely to be hybrids of the stemless varieties (ie. flowers and leaves grow separately from the underground rhizome).
However, this can be a bit confusing because these species sometimes grow leaf bracts around the flowers to help attract insects, which can be seen in my photos, the little leaves which look like extra petals. However, the  true leaves in their photos looked more refined, which made me wonder if mine were hellebores after all.    

Then googling "photos of hellebores", I found a picture with coarse leaves (I hope she doesn't mind me saying) similar to mine in Greenforks blog. She advised cutting back the leaves because it makes the plant less susceptible to Hellebore Leaf Spot, which I did, uncovering a snail graveyard in the process, but the flowers now seem exposed and vulnerable, and appear to have frozen in their bud state during the bitterly cold spell this week.

The advantages of the stemless hellebores is that they live longer and they can be split and replanted successfully. (You have to be quite brutal because the root ball is woody and the roots grow down deeper than you would expect.)  I confirmed this because some of the buds above are now growing in Mr&Mrs F's front garden - just another experiment (you are supposed to wait till after they flower and split them between late spring and early autumn). I also brought some indoors in a pot to encourage the flowers to open before I published this post, but they didn't and I couldn't keep delaying ... so let's say there was some digital enhancement involved in producing this photo (ie. I opened it with my finger). Please visit Charlotte's Plot to see a lovely photo of a hellebore opening by itself and Carolynsshadegardens "Ode to Hellebores" to admire the work of a dedicated plantswoman. I think mine might be a bit closer to their ancestors than her specimens, having said that, those huge, glossy evergreen leaves, like hands reaching out, don't seem so ugly anymore. I think hellebores are growing on me.

Visit on the first Monday of every month to read posts about Great Plants.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Plant Reproduction (21 JAN 2011)

My mother used to be a gardener, not in a prolific or overtly passionate way though. Her garden flourished gradually year by year. In fact, till my late teens, I was under the impression that she approached gardening as an extension of housework. Then one day I pruned her rhododendron bush because it kept getting tangled in the drying laundry. When I saw her almost in tears, too upset to scold, it dawned on me that plants meant more to her than she let on, however she's been suffering from kidney failure for the past few years which has distracted her attention. I try my best to maintain her garden (under her strict supervision) and to keep her interested in it, entertaining myself with a few experiments in there too, but this blog is about my own garden (where I do as I please).
These photos show the cuttings that I have taken from her garden to nurse in my own : pink rhododendron & lace-cap hydrangea, peachy tree peony, white & mauve magnolia, bright orange azalea, green-leaved pieris & culinary bay.   Please note the fox protection, it's worked so far (Promise to my Garden no.3 - see previous post).   I'm not sure if the cuttings have rooted or just been preserved by the cold, but they are looking healthy after a couple of months. I haven't given them a gentle tug to check for anchorage, as I would have done last year, because I'm going to trust Mother Nature and leave them be (Promise no.? - OK, I'll stop going on about the Promises).   By taking a cutting and rooting it you are guaranteed to reproduce an identical plant to the parent. On the other hand, to combine desirable (or undesirable) characteristics of two different plants, sexual reproduction or hybridisation needs to take place, which occurs naturally with the help of insects transferring pollen from one flower to another.  Most garden plants were originally hybridised from their wild ancestors, developing them to be bigger, with more attractive flowers and more disease resistant by careful selection of parents with particular genes.

I knew roses have been bred for centuries, hybrid teas probably the most renowned, and found a couple of articles which have been written so comprehensively, that when read together, even a novice gardener could follow the step-by-step instructions to carry out their first trial in rose-breeding :
(1) When a rose is half open, remove it's own pollen sacs to turn it into a "mother".
(2) Collect powdery pollen from a different "father" rose and wipe it onto the sticky central stigma of the "mother".
(3) Wait for the rosehip fruit to develop & ripen, then cut it open and remove the seeds.
(4) In cold climates, store the seeds wrapped in wet tissue, sealed in a plastic bag, inside a fridge.
(5) After a month, check the seeds every week, replacing in the fridge till little roots can be seen.
(6) Plant the rose seedlings in soil.

I planned to try crossing my blood red and pure white roses in the summer, just to find out if they would produce pink or raspberry-rippled babies. I assumed that I could use the same method to breed foxgloves, but wondered if anyone had already dabbled in this specific field of botany.  My suspicion that every thought that one could possibly think has already been thought about and posted on the internet was soon confirmed. I found two scientific papers written by the same person Wilfred Ernest Warren in 1917 & 1922. I delved further, and was stupefied with disbelief when I discovered that he was an engineer, who was keen on foxgloves, bred them and took measurements. He hypothesised that the conclusions from these breeding experiments might help us understand inherited diseases.

Wilf Warren died suddenly on 6th May, 1976, shortly before his 80th birthday. By profession he
was an electrical engineer but since childhood he had a great interest in natural history, botany
in particular. His first notebook was written up at the age of 7, and in adult life (in addition to
meticulous botanical records) he kept a naturalist’s diary which makes most interesting reading.
His last task was to bring this up to date.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Promises to my Garden (16 JAN 2011)

This photo was taken in October 2010, just before the first frost. I look at it when I have the winter blues and think happy thoughts but ... What would I have done differently?  Did I achieve my goals last year? – well, none of the ones that I set in January, but they weren't about gardening, I didn't know that I would be gardening then.

At the beginning of last year, I invited Mr & Mrs F. to check out my DIY modifications as Mr F. had taken an amused interest. He had a word with Mrs. F and returned with the reply, that they would come round when my garden was in bloom because she was a keen gardener. I couldn't predict if the garden would bloom at that point, but in early spring I saw it had potential because the bulbs were flowering by themselves and a bush was covered with salmon-pink blossom. Prior to their visit I had bought a few packets of seeds, seed trays and compost. Mrs F. inspected my weedy garden and offered me some more plants. That's how it all began, I didn’t visualise an ending and I'm glad I didn't, I just enjoyed the journey (as they say).

According to Steven R. Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"  - Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (I didn't buy this book, it was given to me, say no more), these are the steps to achieving your goals :
- Start with the end in mind (Steven talks about imagining what people would be saying at your funeral – don't worry I wont go that far) .
- Write down your goals eg. on a pocket-card to carry around with you.
- Visualise & dream about your goals. Tell the world.

This post is in effect my pocket-card of gardening resolutions for 2011, promises to my garden actually, but I wont be setting any goals :

Experiments with Plants will continue - no display-ready plants will enter my garden unless they are presents. The foxglove measurements will be tabulated and correlated with flowering performance (if they flower), effects of other factors may be estimated but more about that later in the year. My ultimate foxglove experiment (which I think about almost every night before I go to sleep – I can't even remember what I used to think about before) would be to create my own foxglove subspecies.

Live and let live with the Slugs & Snails – i.e. continue with the organic gardening philosophy. I have proof - it works!  I'd like to grow some vegetables this year in memory of Geoff Hamilton, my TV gardening role model. Just hope the alien slug (big, burnt orange & ribbed) doesn't make another appearance.

Don’t be angry with the fox, just be more sly – I can't believe it was trying to scratch out my bulbs even when it was snowing. The major mistake I made was clearing stretches of soil and just planting bulbs in them. The fox has used these areas for its convenience (to put it politely). This year I have bought perennial plant seeds as well as annuals for better soil coverage next winter. (Hopefully it doesn't use the lawn instead.)
Any advice on this problem would be gratefully received.

Have trust in Mother Nature – there is no such thing as failure in the garden. I was too quick to give up and pull out apparently hopeless plants last year.
One lucky survivor, my "giant" hollyhock germinated last spring and is still less than 2 inches tall, but at least it's still alive.  I have a soft spot for it, sympathising with it being a late developer.

Use the Garden to do Good Work - which will have an impact beyond the garden, myself and my life. This sounds like an unachievable goal that I have set for myself, after I wrote that I wouldn't set any. It's not a goal, more a way of thinking.  Last year things that I thought were impossible (unexpected at least) happened in this garden, or because of it, but these were mainly concerned with my selfish fetishes. Who knows what the future holds if I start this year with an altruistic mind-set.

new year gardening resolutions

Visit New Year Gardening Resolutions Blog Carnival

at my little garden in japan

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Primula (09 JAN 2011)

This is my ragged, long-suffering Polyanthus or Primula which has survived, and continues to flower, despite being dug up (by a fox?), nibbled by slugs and covered in snow. I prefer the name Primula because it means : first to flower in spring. According to wikipedia, these plants are self-fertilising, producing both male and female flowers. The males have styles protuding, like the ones in these photos, while the females have prominent stamens. The crinkled appearance of the leaves and their stiffness suggest that they could also be propogated by taking cuttings of leaf sections like people do with begonia rex. Mine seems to be producing baby plants by itself.
The flowers look violet when the sun shines on them, and deep blue when it doesn't. I've had a fixation with flowers this colour since reading a haunting poem called "Bavarian Gentians" by D.H. Lawrence many years ago. It's a story from Ancient Greek mythology : Persephone Goddess of Spring Growth was abducted by Pluto God of Death. After he made her his Queen, she was committed to spend autumn and winter with him in the underworld. During her time there she uses a gentian to light the way because even though this flower is deep blue in the daylight, it's a torch compared to the darkness of the underworld : "Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark darkening the daytime, torch-like, with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom"
When I first read this poem, I looked for a picture of a gentian in my local library and was disappointed because it was not as striking or as dark as the one in my imagination. As time passed, the idea of the underworld having a blackness with a hint of colour stayed with me and was a comfort to someone who can only envisage a darkness after death. I tried to find the poem again later but couldn't because I had forgotten the author. Of course, today it's easy to find poems on the internet (, also many captivating pictures of gentians, even ones that look like torches ('s%20Gentian.jpg).
Unfortunately, I don't believe in heaven, hell or reincarnation. I write "unfortunately", because I know people of various faiths and I recognise the strength gained by looking forward to an after-life. However, since becoming a gardener, my perception of death has changed…..When I learnt about perennials, biennials and annuals at the beginning of my gardening adventures, I wondered why anyone would bother planting the latter because they die after just a year. Now I understand completely that change and new life is necessary for the grand scheme of the garden to thrive. This year I have seen plants being born, being beautiful, then dying, making room for something new. Also, I have a new fascination with soil, not just what comes out of it but what goes into it, which one day will be me. The thought of resting in the soil after life doesn't worry me now (as long as I don't focus on the worms).

Monday, 3 January 2011

Blotanical - where I'm not embarrassed of my Foxglove Fetish (03 JAN 2011)

On 1st Jan, this blog was accepted by Blotanical ("where garden blogs bloom"). It was timely, because on New Year's Eve I had been looking back at the year and thinking that I should have spent less time gardening and more time DIYing or working on my chartered engineer membership.

If you are reading this post and wondering how to access a global gardening community or just want to put your gardening visions & thoughts out there to see how people respond (without having to look them in the eye), let me explain how I reached this point ….

I am young enough to feel comfortable meddling with e-stuff, old enough to be in awe of how communications have changed :
- I didn't use a word processor till I started working.
- I'm still cautious using the internet, I am not into Facebook or on-line shopping.
- Until 3 months ago, I only used the internet for E-mail & Googling.

I started gardening (responsibly) in March this year.

In July it was noticeable that all the weeds had been replaced by flowers. However, my visitors didn't seem as impressed with my efforts as I had hoped. They actually seemed quite bored when I dragged them out for garden tours and told them the stories of each of my ten foxgloves, and how I was taking measurements to understand if size matters re. flowering performance. Maybe my wish for a Secret Garden had come true and no-one could see it the way I did.

By August, I was truly hooked and started drawing sketches marking out plant locations and making plans for improvements. It occurred to me that this process would be much easier if I had a camera, so I bought a basic digital camera for £79. Then I took photos of every nook and cranny of the garden with my new toy and attached them as post-scripts in e-mails (whether the recipients were interested or not).                                                                                                    

In September, I created a new central flower bed to highlight my favourite plants of the season and took before & after photos. It was at this point that I started compiling them into a garden diary. I wanted to put them on the internet, so I could direct people to them with a web link instead of attaching large files to e-mails. I had heard of blogs from people at work who travel a lot. I googled reviews on blogs and found that was recommended especially for beginners. 

In October,  I set up a Google account (a requirement) and then a Blogger account within minutes. When I was thinking of a blog name, I came across other gardening blogs and realised that I was not the only one who had this idea. Then during an afternoon I started this blog using a "simple" template, inserted my favourite photo, wrote a few words around it and pressed the Publish Post button.                                                                 

In November, about 3 posts later, the blog could be found via Google, but it was competing with all the other sites referring to Experiments with Plants. I read that the best way to let readers know that your blog exists is to register with a relevant blog directory site. I googled "gardening blogs" but couldn't find a site with similar blogs to mine. (I didn't persevere as far as p.4 where Blotanical was listed.)

Then one day I googled "How gardening changed my life" as a potential new blog name (a bit melodramatic, but true), found a blog called My Skinny Garden which was right up my street (in a spiritual sense - it's actually in the USA) and noticed that it had a link to which turned out to be just what I was looking for and more, so I registered and applied to have my blog added to their list.                                                                                              

During December, I continued posting. What started off as a
collection of photos with minimal descriptions turned into a collection of writings. I studied the blogs listed in Blotanical and wished that mine was amongst them. I noticed from the maps that most of the bloggers were from the USA and wondered why there weren't more British ones, as Britian is supposed to be a nation full of gardeners. Hopefully this post will increase awareness.

There are a couple of technical hitches with the site, you have to keep logging in and I haven't been able to "pick" people's posts to show I like them, but I understand that the site is currently being revamped so I'm sure these issues will be ironed out. From what I can see the Blotanical team seems responsive to tailor the site to meet the needs of the community it serves.

I'm not sure how many people apply to Blotanical, how many people get rejected, if getting chosen is an achievement or not. I do know that after 1st Jan some people around the world have started reading this blog, making comments about it and sending me messages. It's such a thrill.
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