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Peter Janke – plantsman AND designer

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An all-too brief trip to Germany recently. A chance to get some summer sun during a singularly cool English summer, but to be honest, one does not go to Cologne to lie on the beach. The main reason for going was to interview Peter Janke about his garden (for House and Garden magazine), which is actually a bit further north, just outside Düsseldorf. I was staying in Cologne with Ina Sperl and her family – Ina is gardening correspondent for the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, the regional paper. Though technically a freelancer, Ina has a position in garden journalism that is now unknown in Britain, a two-day a week job with a desk in the office!
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Peter practically has gardening in his genes, as his grandparents had a nursery, his grandmother having been a notable breeder of cyclamen (Germany has always much led in this field). He had to take over the family business as a young man, owing to his mother being ill, which meant that he never went through the long process of training (university or apprenticeship) which is normal in Germany. Note for the rest of us – you do not normally do anything in Germany without a long training, even supermarket shelf-stacking requires a long and arduous training (I am making this up, but you get my point). Peter designs gardens professionally, for him it comes completely naturally, “I had been growing plants and putting them together since I was five, making funny little combinations as a child”.
  P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }People who have a good design eye and are real plant collectors are rare. Peter is one of these – “I try to bring together a collector’s garden and a designer’s garden”. On his 14,000 m2 plot, he says he has over 4,000 varieties, and yet as Ina had said to me over breakfast that day “there is nothing out of place”. There is a very strong sense of structure, and rhythm, but it is in no way ‘formal’ planting. “I like the idea of formal elements and natural things” he says, and his planting is very much about getting this balance – “we like formal landscapes but the trouble is people go too far and have formal planting too, formality works best with more naturalistic planting”. “I am fascinated by the Beth Chatto style from the beginning but I have things she would hate, like clipped shrubs.” Peter worked for Beth on and off for two years, an essential training, and she was clearly a mentor, but I can imagine a good-humoured argument or two between them over things like this.
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One of the key problems in planting design is keeping interest going through the year, but Peter says “this is the trickiest part of planting design…but I truly believe a garden should be for twelve months, and comparing with fine art you can have a Claude Monet in summer and a George Braque in winter if you do it right”. Peter is very keen on using space twice over, such as experimenting with layering, eg. late-developing plants which can allow for a ground layer of small spring bulbs or low perennials first, eg, many Zingiberaceae or having late emerging foliage from things like Darmera peltata, or somewhat smaller, the fern Gymnocarpium dryopteris. with bulbs or very early woodland perennials. Another thing he is doing istesting different ways of cutting perennials down, pruning them mid-season to get healthy new growth, e.g. Geum rivale “two or three weeks later they look super”. He is trying to create combinations that you can do this with, using astrantia, tellima, onoclea, matteucia. In addition he says how “it is possible to have a border which is full of bulbs and spring flowers then the picture changes completely almost tropical in appearance with Tetrapanax, Boehmeria and many others”. This ‘tropical’ look is something which I have noticed a bit recently in Germany – where the real exotic look possible in Britain is impossible (winters are a lot colder) but often using large-foliage plants from the Far East, like many Aralia, Boehmeria, Shefflera etc.
  P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }Walking through the woodland area of the garden Peter tells me that “variegation almost used to be a no-no, but now my attitude has changed completely, I can appreciate that it can be very useful, in very small quantities, it brings light into shaded places, and it can be used to create some striking combinations, particularly good for urban situations.”
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It is interesting to hear how Peter describes himself as being very influenced by Karl Foerster (a writer, nurseryman and plant breeder who was immensely influential in the early part of the 20thcentury and who wrote extensively), “the antithesis of what I knew in the cut flower industry, the use of plants which are not necessarily flamboyant and colourful, he taught me to see plants in a completely different way”. But we agreed between us that actually Foerster’s style today would be seen as relatively conventional. Things have moved on – partly because his last major book, on grasses and ferns, in 1957, has helped initiate a whole new more naturalistic planting style.
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I remember a previous conversation with Peter, a few years ago, in which we were comparing British and German gardening cultures in the early part of the 20th century, and probably discussing which was more influential. Peter said that he thought that German garden culture had been almost irreperably damaged by the 1939-1945 war. Actually, there was a huge drop off in plant availability in Britain too, a loss which carried on through the 1950s. In Britain however gardening remained culturally important; in Germany, Peter thinks less so, “we lost our German identity completely after the war, in garden culture too, but now we are getting our garden culture back…. the garden lecturers like Cassian Schmidt have done a lot to change people’s perceptions, and the fact that more and more private gardens are open that helps a lot, started with groups of plant collectors opening their gardens to show each other, now nearly every city has an open garden gate event, it makes people work at their gardens”.
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A couple of years ago I did a blog post on pre-war German gardenculture – see here.
Since then, I have made contact with a member of the family of the artist, Escher Bartning, who did many of the illustrations for Karl Foerster (such as the phlox in that previous blog post – the delphiniums were by her father Ludwig) from the 1930s to the 1950s, by which time Foerster was living in the DDR (communist East Germany). Her niece lives in Leipzig and still has many of the original watercolours (I told this to a colleague in Berlin, whose response was “is that where they are, we have been looking for them for years”). Recently I was able to get hold of a whole set of Gartenschönheit, the magazine that Foerster edited before the war. More on this in a later blog post I hope, its a wonderful but also deeply poignant view into a liberal, broadminded, modernist Germany, at a time when the dominant political and cultural currents were going very much the other way, and a cataclysm beckoned. I’ll end with some of Escher Bartning’s covers for the magazine.

* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners – currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********

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Reviewing progress at the Olympic Park

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The Sarah Price design for the ‘Sheffield school’ plantings at the QE Park
 A trip to the Queen Elizabeth Park with a lively group from the Landscape Institute – this is the vast new park in east London which is the legacy from the 2012 Olympic Park, the largest new park in the UK for over a hundred years. I was interested to see all the various naturalistic plantings, particularly the ambitious plant mixes created by Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough from the University of Sheffield; Piet Oudolf has created some borders here as well. Good to take an LI group around, get their opinions and feedback and since a lot of them have been here already find out what they thought it is like at other times of year.
Part of the Piet Oudolf planting at the QE Park
I had been here in June, and had left with a vague feeling of discouragement, so to see much looking really good just now has been most heartening. All in all I’m impressed! There is a lot of very colourfully exuberant planting, well maintained and looking as if it could continue to develop well over the next few years. This is a very large, ambitious and complex park- it is interesting to see the management documents from the London Legacy Development Corporation who are managing it, which outline a large number of different habitats, all receiving different treatments: particularly mowing and cutting regimes. There was a lot of scepticism in the group about how many of these will be adhered to, and suggestions that there will be an inevitable tendency towards ‘one size fits all’. We shall have to wait and see.
Bupleurum fruticosum in the Oudolf planting
Much of the ‘splash’ of the Olympic Park plantings in 2012 was through annuals, which of course were a one-year special. Many of those areas have been grassed over now, although when I was here in June there seemed to be a lot of areas which looked like ex-annuals, with California Poppy (Eschscholzia) doing rather nicely. These areas often included a lot of native plants too and were attractive but did not look as if they would stay for long – I could see grass invading and taking over in a year or two.
There are a lot of areas which are basically using a limited range of native flora (which here in Britain is pretty limited anyway) alongside the tussock grass Molinia caerulea, on what looks like a pretty infertile substrate. Unlike most British grasses, the molinia will not form a suffocating carpet over other plants – because it is a tussock-former, and the low fertility soil will reduce the growth of other grasses as they will inevitably seed in from outside. So these should look good for a long while yet.
The North American planting
The Hitchmough/Dunnett plantings (not forgetting garden designer Sarah Price) who knitted them altogether were particularly impressive. They made four geographically-defined plantings along the waterway opposite the London Aquatics Centre: Europe, North America, Southern Hemisphere (basically South Africa) and Asia. In June there wasn’t much in flower, although I don’t think I’d got as far as ‘Europe’ on that occasion (I got jolly lost – it is a huge and at times disorientating place). One of the weaknesses of the Olympic Park as legacy project was probably that there was little thought given to spring bulbs, perennial or shrub performance (the games were in July). In fact one of the unusual things about the whole place, is the remarkably low importance of the usual range of horticultural shrubs – refreshing. Most of the shrubs here are native species.
The South African planting
The North American planting was just about to come to peak flowering – in fact there would appear to be very little in flower before this time; this is a planting which will end the year in a crescendo. The Southern Hemisphere mix, which looked rather dull and very gappy in June had clearly had a good summer and still had plenty of life in it. Over time the agapanthus will form solid clumps and the dieramas will probably seed, so filling the gaps. Of all the mixes this is the most exuberantly colourful and exotic looking: gladiolus, galtonia, kniphofia with underplanting of New Zealand carexes annd ?restios. The Asian planting was the most successful in terms of ground coverage, space filling and colour, but relying on very few species: Persicaria amplexicaulis, Anemone x hybrida, and grasses, and there was little in flower here in June.
Selinum wallichianum in the Oudolf borders
Since the Olympics, the main development has been some Piet Oudolf planting up around the various public grass and playground areas. It was interesting to see what he comes up for a public space which needs to have a simple, straightforward management regime – lots of perennials and grasses in easy-to-maintain small groups making a great impact as a backdrop for nicely-sized grass areas, very well maintained and mostly doing really well. Very little was in flower in June though and there was a rumble of criticism that the planting could have offered a longer season; the same has been heard about his new planting at Hauser + Wirth in Somerset. It being a Saturday, the whole area was being incredibly well-used, the people of London in all their amazing ethnic diversity picnicing, playing, chatting and relaxing.
There are planting lists on the QE park website, which is at first sight looks a cheerfully dumbed-down affair, with a rather inadequate map but if you dig around you will find: http://queenelizabetholympicpark.co.uk/the-park/attractions/parklands/gardens/2012-gardens

* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners – currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********

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Berchigranges – still the most beautiful garden in the world. And it could be yours….

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Three years ago, round about this time of year I visited le Jardin de Berchigranges, in the Vosges mountains of eastern France. At the time I remember saying (and committing to the blog) that this was the most beautiful garden I had ever been to. That’s quite a rash thing to say, and rather untypical of me. So it was interesting to go again, and yes, I think it is, more so than ever. Berchigranges really is the most amazing garden and place. And whats’ more – there is an opening here, for someone, or a couple.

Monique et Thierry, who have made this remarkable place over the last twenty-odd years, are in their sixties and looking to slow down (eventually!) so they are hoping to find someone who will come and become involved and eventually take over, and they are prepared to give them a major stake in the property. Now that’s a pretty incredible offer. One with huge potential for someone who wishes to commit themselves to a life of hard work in an incredibly beautiful but remote place. So pass the word around.

It is always difficult to pin down what makes a garden really special.
A Place Apart
The journey, up endlessly curving mountain roads through conifer forest, do help prepare one for something special. Once there, with views out from an almost amphitheatre type setting, you do feel that you have left the profane world behind and are somewhere special, almost enchanted. It feels pretty remote. It is.
There are endless quirky little touches like the odd hornbeam hedgelet replacing the stone in a dry stone wall

An Experimental Garden
Monique kept on saying to me – “this is an experimental garden”. Innovation is what these two do incessantly. It is clearly second nature to them. Buildings, planting, land shaping, everything here is done to try something out. There is an unfamiliarity here, because there are so many things which I have never seen before: a long low sinuous building with a grass roof, a bridge with a hedge on either side, great retaining walls built of logs, a formal garden with wooden parqué flooring, a huge new meadow full of asters, silphiums and other prairie perennials, or simply familiar garden perennials used on a generous scale in a very naturalistic way. Yet it is a very gentle unfamiliarity – there is none of that desperate seeking after the contemporary in the self-conscious art-world way of say, the Chaumont garden festival.
This is a bridge!

Innovation

The level of innovation here is a strong reminder of just how un-innovative much garden-making is. Berchingranges feels everso subtly different to so many gardens, because the owners are just doing what they wanted to do, for themselves and probably don’t actually care what other people think. (It is not for me to tell this story, but that of their meeting and subsequent passionate love affair has a similar quality). The trouble is with most garden-making is that most people care too much about what others think, as they try to impress, or to emulate, or to, and ohmygod I hate this, make an English garden. Why do people in France, in Germany or the USA endlessly try to make English ****** gardens? I’m sick of them. They all end up the same – as a pastel pastiche, while their owners obliviously live the cliché, almost wallowing in their inability to do anything actually creative. That there is no attempt to here to do that is one reason amongst many why this place is just so damm good (so there are not many roses).

Monique is actually a huge Bloomsbury fan, but she doesn’t waltz around with a big hat with a trug over her arm, pretending she is Vita Sackville-West. Her understanding of Bloomsbury is much more genuinely in the movement’s spirit of bohemian experimentalism.
Going With What Works
One of the great things about Berchigranges is that M et T realise that a plant does well and then plant lots of it. This is nearly 700m in altitude and receiving up to 3000mm of rain a year, so conditions are a little different to many gardens and there are endless surprises. Actaeas do well, and so there is a whole great patch of their dancing white flower spikes. Euphorbia corollata (hardly seen in Britain) forms foaming white masses above increasingly fiery autumn colour. Clumps of Gentiana triflora, nearly a metre high, project an intense blueness on a lightly-shaded bank. A wall of 3m high Senecio canabinifolia marks the end of a meadow.
Creative Tension
This is a very naturalistic garden, with a huge amount of self-seeding and spreading going on, and sometimes a feeling that things in some places are just being left to get on with it. However there is always a clear edge and then the most immaculate lawns. When I was there, Thierry and two employees were busily raking off worm casts. Most of us ‘new perennialists’ (Dutch and British anyway) regard having a lawn with more clover/daisy/selfheal than grass almost as a badge of honour. But here the lawn is all grassy perfection. Thierry’s first career was as a hairdresser apparently. It shows. They explain however that this is France, and in France if you plant wild you have to show that the wildness is intentional and the best way of doing this is frame all the wildness with a perfect lawn and perfectly trimmed edges.
Monique likens the hornbeam hedges at the top of the garden to a pinball machine which sends visitors backwards and forwards before sending them out to explore the more naturalistic areas of the garden.
* * * *
Gardeners with a limitation of space tend to rework their plantings after a few years. Those with no such restriction tend to go on and develop new areas. This is not always a good thing, as there is the risk of them over-extending themselves; the previously planted areas meanwhile not receiving the rethinking and reworking they might benefit from. At Berchigranges, Monique et Thierry have moved on down the hill, but developing a progressively more naturalistic style as they do so. The latest development is the ‘Bohemian meadow’, asters and other (mostly daisy-family) plants in grass.
Visitors in the (relatively new) meadow area

The older areas of the garden at the top have matured well, although there are places which I think could benefit from some rethinking – where one species has dominated for example. But what is interesting is to see how other species have successfully blended – I was particularly impressed by a narrow rose hedge, just like a mini version of a country hedgerow with perennials spreading along the base: brunnera, geranium, digitalis etc. This is particularly instructive at the edges of the borders where geraniums or persicaria-type species have spread to form a really solid edge, and kept trimmed back with a very clear lawn/boundary demarcation. Much of these plantings are incredibly full and dense, which must help with weed control. The edges of the plantings, Thierry explains, are trimmed every two weeks – sort of continuous pruning really. This stops the problem I have – of perennials falling over paths in rain. It does not work with everything (it would not work with monocots like hemerocallis or grasses, which only grow back from the base) but for geraniums, alchemilla, campanulas, persicarias, which can respond to a prune with growing more side-shoots and bush out, it helps develop a really dense edge. I’m going to try this at home this coming growing season – le nouvel régime Berchigranges.
Nepeta at the front of a planting, clipped to keep it flopping over the edge, a new way of managing perennial edges.
One of Thierry’s endlessly simple but novel creations. There is seating for 100 scattered around the garden.

 The garden website:

* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners – currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********

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Perennials across Europe: Czech, Slovak, German

One of Adam Baros’s plantings at the Dendrological Garden in Pruhonice, which has survived a scorching summer
My recent post about the wonderful garden of Berchigranges in the Vosges mountains of France, was at the end of a trip which involved driving to Hermannshof and then on to Prague (Pruhonice actually) to do some teaching and then back across southern Germany. The Czech garden tradition and present, I have blogged about before, and it was good to be back again so soon. Adam Baroš had got me a long to run two days of workshops at the Dendrologial Park, and I felt very honoured to be the first person to teach in a brand-new building. There is a feeling here of positive, reasonably well-funded looking forward.
The city of Plzen in western Czech Republic has some of the most extensive perennial plantings in any city centre I have seen anywhere.
Also in city centre Plzen, vast arcades of ivy, very clever, and something i have never seen before.
The literally hot topic of conversation on both my trips to central Europe this year, which included Austria a few weeks ago, was the summer. Many days over 30°C, a maximum (at Pruhonice) of 38.5°C (in the shade) and just-above ground temperatures in the sun an incredible lawn-killing 50°C. And no rain for eight weeks. There has been rain since and much has recovered by the time of my mid-September visit, but there is clearly going to be a lot of long-term damage to woody plants, with many losses. Garden staff say that surface-rooting species like Hamamelis and Rhododendron are particularly badly affected, and they expect many to die. It is a frightening foretaste of things to come, if, as predicted, global warming and climate change continue.
It was good to have so many people at the workshops and from such a range of backgrounds, and to have quite a few come up from Slovakia on both days. There were some familiar faces such as Prof. Dagmar Hillova who teaches landscape and planting design at a University at Nitra in Slovakia and Martina Šášiková who runs Victoria – trvalková škôlka (www.victoria-trvalky.sk) a huge wholesale perennial nursery near Nitra. I said I would do a planting workshop for her next year, to celebrate the nursery’s fifteenth anniversary. It was great to have the Slovaks along – my wife Jo worked in Bratislava from 1993-1995 so we feel we know the country well. There were worries at the time about the viability of the newly independent country since the saying was that “the Czechs make the boots and the Slovaks the laces”. Not any more – the country has done well economically and politically and they are in the euro, and there has not been a squeak about their letting the new currency down, unlike the southern members of the eurobelt. And of course, economic development drives an interest in gardening and public landscaping.
Bettina Jaugstetter plantings at ABB
On my way I had visited the fabulous Hermannshof garden at Weinheim in Germany’s Rhineland, somewhere I ideally try to get to once a year. Director Cassian Schmidt is also heavily involved in teaching planting design at a new university of Geissenheim. His wife, Bettina Jaugstetter, is a garden designer who is also now developing planting mixes. (For those who need an introdction to the German concept of Mixed Planting look here). I had seen spectacular pictures of her work at the ABB factory, a nearby manufacturer of electrical equipment and so I was delighted to visit and see these now well-established plantings. Bettina’s plantings are not in soil, but a mineral based substrate similar to that used on green roofs. A minimal organic matter content helps provide a stable and predictable rooting environment and reduces opportunities for weed growth, so reducing maintenance. At the end of the year, everything is cut back and removed. As with mineral substrate based green roofs this must inevitably result in a reduced value to the biodiversity value of the planting since there is limited resources for the development of a soil ecology – the trade-off is the stability of the environment for maintenance purposes and the incredibly high visual value of the plantings in the workplace.

Later that day, we went off to see some plantings in Ludwigshafen, where park director Harald Sauer has created a series of spectacular annual and perennial plantings in the city’s Ebert Park and at the entrance to a major cemetery. I understood his budget to be pretty limited, which makes these all the more impressive. Some of his work is completely new – great snaking beds of perennials in the cemetery for example but others are about the imaginative remaking or enlivening of existing features made in the 20th century and needing renewal. The plantings are very successful, looking very vibrant now, although in looking at them I do ask the question, what do they look like earlier in the year? One can imagine bulbs in here, but what about the May-July interest? I do sometimes worry that all the focus we have put on late-season perennials and winter seedheads has drawn attention away from the early summer period.

Rows of watering cans used for graveside plantings – rather sad people feel they have to lock them up!
There are some more pictures of the Ebert Park here, and of the Ludwigshafen Cemetery here.

Further on down the road I popped into the Gaissmayer nursery near Ulm which has a huge range of perennials plus lots of whacky artworks and an attached ‘museum of garden culture’. The sales model for perennials seems similar to that of many other nurseries over here and in The Netherlands, small plants mostly in 9cm pots, at some prices – often only 3 euros a plant, half the price of the 2litre pots of perennials which now seems to be the standard in Britain. It does seem to be a very different business model.

The Museum of GardenCulture displayed only a part of what is clearly a huge collection of tools and equipment, and which, from what I was able to work out, is divided into several parts which move around different locations each year. Far more impressive than anything we have in Britain and which knocks London’s Garden Museum into the proverbial ‘cocked hat’ – although since the museum are undergoing a huge rebuild next year, we can but live in hope.

* * * * *

If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. There is also the first in a series of planting design textbooks, delivered in collaboration with My Garden School.
You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners – currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

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Self-seeding plants – joys and dangers

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Molinia caerulea supsp. arundinacea glowing in recent November sunlight – the worst offender for seedings, not so much the quantity more the root systems. But it would by no means happen everywhere.
Self-seeding has always been a crucial part of my gardening. There was a time when it would have been regarded as totally lesé majesté on the part of plants to decide where they were going to put themselves, only the gardener or designers being allowed to make such important decisions. Thanks to Beth Chatto, Margery Fish etc., the idea was introduced that self-seeding was ok, but of course had to be managed. At first deeply subversive of the border-order, the idea of self-seeding has become almost mainstream.
Hollyhocks at the back of one of our plantings at Montpelier Cottage; despite being on heavy loam they self-seed well. The colour range is very rewarding. Here we seem to avoid the worst rust, possibly because of prevailing westerly winds.
A recent book by some German and Austrian colleagues – Cultivating Chaos, how to enrichlandscapes with self-seeding plants (Timber Press), is the first one to address the topic. I wrote a forward, which starts off by telling the story of how I once planted one plant of a Geranium sylvaticum plant and it then seeded all over the garden – delightfully. But of course, despite being in the same part of the country on very similar soil, has failed to do so in my current garden. It is this unpredictability which makes self-seeding so interesting, intriguing and of course often frustrating.
You should just about be able to make out the spherical bobble flowers of  Echinops bannaticus ‘Taplow Giant’.
The book is wonderfully illustrated by that king of German garden photographers, Jürgen Becker, and includes much useful information, but leaves much unsaid. One major area which is not stressed is the sheer unpredictability of self-seeding. It is of course difficult to write about the unpredictable, but it would have been nice to have some pointers, some observed correlations about particular plants, environment, seed characteristics. The title in German – Blackbox Gardening (the English is used) does however hint strongly at this. The blackbox referred to is a concept in biology, whereby we know what goes in, and what comes out, but have only a very incomplete understanding of the relationship between the two.
Hesperis matronalis – one of those self-seeders that annoying does not seed where you want it to, and does where you don’t want it. It is related to wallflowers and is similarly biennial. There should be a variation between white and purple.
Eschscholzia – California poppies, a winter annual which flowers for months with us, summer through to early winter. But in some places will become invasive. Many self-seeding perennials are potentially a risk in the wrong place.
Some garden plants produce masses of seed but which almost never appear appears to germinate. Gentiana asclepiadea does this in my garden, but somewhere I was recently (Scotland? Berchigranges?) it self-seeded (what bliss!), possibly in Scotland, where I saw it growing 1.2m high! Others always seem to seed. At Montpelier Cottage, our two best self-seeders are the two classics for this type of plant: hollyhocks and Aquilegia vulgaris. Interestingly both have considerable genetic diversity, manifested largely through a range of flower colour, the aquilegia particularly – originally a Jelitto seed mix.
Gentiana asclepiadea, seeds in some lucky people’s gardens.
Cowslips, Primula veris, like nearly all primulas will seed very easily in the right conditions.
Others seed too much, and this is something which Cultivating Chaos does not really face up to, or that of creating dangerously invasively aliens. Effective self-seeders are classically pioneer plants, whose survival strategy is to cast vast quantities of seed around to ensure species survival in unstable and transitional environments. Some will become a nuisance. Early on, at Montpelier, I planted out Euphorbia rigida, which is a winter annual which produces a large head of small white yellow-green flowers. Fine, except that just before flowering time it tends to fall over, looking a right mess. I’ve spent years trying to get rid of it, but now with the garden very much fuller, the opportunity it has for seeding is much reduced, and seedlings which survive attempts at elimination face more competition perhaps – as they don’t seem to fall over so much. So, it survives as a minor, and largely tolerated, element. 
Euphorbia rigida – can look good can’t it?
Astrantia major varieties, all seeded from – originally pink/red, varieties.
In view of what I have just said about the euphorbia, some self-seeders which went from interesting to annoying have become less annoying over time. One reason i think is that in the early years of the garden there was more space, so a few things, like Echinops bannaticus ‘Taplow Giant’ got enormous and were just a nuisance. Now I weed out most of its seedlings just letting a few grow, and since there is now so much more competition, they do not grow so big. This is a species which seems distinctly short-lived like many vigorous seeders, and so the self-seeding is needed if it is stay in the garden.
Meadowsweet, a locally native plant, spontaneous seedlings have to be watched; pretty for a few years but then so strongly spreading it needs removing.
Most unwanted seedlings can be hoed off or pulled out. Sometimes they can’t, because, like fennel, they rapidly develop a deep taproot which needs digging out, or spraying out (except that that is never going to work in the winter). Molinia caerulea is another horror, as even small plants have a very dense wide-spreading and tough root system. Given half a chance they seem to be able to insinuate a profusion of seedlings in amongst other plants. In our heavy loam, all these that need digging out create quite a lot of work. So last week we dug out all the Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea types – the tall ones. I have written beforeabout my concerns over certain grasses becoming too aggressively self-seeding. This is something which we really do need to watch out for. Some are potentially very problematic.
Aquilegia vulgaris, the Queen of self-seeders, as they maintain amazing diversity as generations replace each other.
Telekia speciosa – one of those ‘perennials’ which lives for only a few years, and has to self-seed in the garden for it to survive. With us it seems to do so at the right kind of level.
Silene dioica, red campion, a vigorous self-seeder, but since it is almost summer dormant, it fits in well with summer flowering perennials, at least in our long Atlantic growing season.
SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

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The rise and rise of the feel-good garden

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I recently had to review a book, a mainstream, lavishly illustrated, rather general book on choosing and using ornamental plants. I suspect the author concerned (who shall remain nameless) had been told to write the book by their agent, or the TV company who has given them their high exposure. I’m sorry to say it got a bit of a hatchet job, as it was very sloppy and inadequate on the information front, but what dawned on me as I put it down was that it never, ever, faced up to some awkward truths about gardening. In particular there was no mention of weeds or weeding, something any book of the past on this subject would have dealt with, and often in great detail.
I fell to thinking more about comparing garden books of the past (until roughly the 1970s) and now. The book I had just reviewed had a ‘feel good’ factor – gardening is fun, gardening is lovely, gardening gets you close to nature, let mother nature be your guide, blah, blah, blah. Let’s not mention slugs, weeds, aphids, diseases, above all let’s not mention anything negative. Hear, see or speak no evil.
‘Old-fashioned’ gardening books were almost the opposite. Looking back on them now, they seem almost obsessed by the negative: huge sections on pests and diseases in particular. There was a great deal of information given, and often given in such a way that surely must have sent many a prospective gardener scurrying back indoors. Contemporary books not only give off an air of ‘everything in the garden is lovely’ but also are remarkably deficient in ‘the difficult stuff’. I will freely admit that some of my own work could have addressed more fully problem issues.
One who does not pretend everything in the garden is coming up roses is Anne Wareham whose book ‘The Bad-tempered Gardener’ says it all. From what I recall, one chapter heading is actually called ‘I hate gardening’. She uses this as an opportunity to think aloud why she does it, and makes a career out of it. She does however, seem to have as much an aversion to hard information as much as many other garden media.
So, what has happened? Why and how have we gone from a world of gardening being difficult, information heavy and a bit of a slog, to it being fun, uplifting, and generally lending itself to ‘lifestyle’ publishing with plant-porn pictures and feel-good text.
The period we are talking about has seen so many changes in the garden world:
  1. the growth of garden design
  2. a far better gender balance with massive increase in women becoming active as gardeners
  3. the large-scale development of consumer media
  4. a vast increase in the availability of consumer product
  5. the rise of ‘green’ gardening: the organic movement, wildlife gardening, etc.
  6. the linking of gardening with the idea of heritage
The first two are linked I think. The old-style garden book or magazine feature had a very strong strand of “get it right lad”. Hard facts presented man to man. A right way and a wrong way. The amateur gardener as a version of the (male) professional. I remember an old farm labourer neighbour who used to grow the most perfect sweet peas and delphiniums but with no thought about how the garden looked as a whole. He was a perfect example. In fact, ditto my father.
I suppose it might be possible to advance a very crude case that: since women tend to be more concerned with what things look like (design) and since the garden market is now far more gender balanced, then that explains that. Well not really; it would be sexist and patronising in the extreme to suggest that the decline in information was due to the rise of the female consumer (traditional women’s activities like cooking and needlework need as much precision and knowledge as grafting and rather more than double digging). By the way, who remembers double-digging?
A more useful avenue might be to explore consumer culture. Companies make stuff to flog to us, and do their best to flog as much of it as possible. In the past a garden shop would sell seeds, tools, chemicals, and at appropriate times of year, plants. Now they sell far less useful stuff and far more that perhaps might be better described as ‘garden décor’ or useful stuff unnecessarily dolled up: slate labels with names of herbs already inscribed, birdboxes with design-conscious avian inhabitants in mind, little wire baskets to put plant pots in, “I’m in the garden” notices to hang on your house door, etc, etc. You know the kind of thing. Much of it made for the grab-and-gift market – “oh heavens, we have to give them something, she likes gardening, go on, that’ll do”. This stuff is designed to look good, and may be sold alongside the purely functional spades, seed trays and packs of fertilizer. Or in some shops may actually replace it – there is a new generation of garden shops which sell only the designed, the visually-appealing, the dubiously useful and the downright dilettante.
Part of the reason for the now rampant consumerism is surely an economic one. Gardening traditionally was an activity that did not need much of a cash outlay: decent tools should last you years, as should seed trays, pots etc. Seed costs little. Potting compost would be one of the highest running costs. Dumbing gardening down, and making everything really easy can be a way of getting people to pay more: selling them vegetable plants, bedding plants, things well on their way to maturity, perennials in three litre pots. Never mind that some are actually very easy to grow from seed, and immensely more rewarding to do so. The illusion of the ‘instant garden’.
It makes sense for garden centres and shops to see half-hardy annuals as young plants, but certainly not hardy ones, many of which form much better plants if sown where they are to flower. What I think is scandalous is the selling of short-lived vegetable plants in containers, sometimes several to a pot; things like mizuna or pak choi, which will bolt in five minutes after being separated and planted out. I have even seen such horrors on sale at an RHS garden; and a leading US nursery as has even offered seedlings of such easy-from-seed plants by post! For a ridiculous quantity of dollars needless to say.
The ‘instant garden’ and one focussed almost entirely on the design skills of putting things together to look good, be they plants, decking, furniture or neo-rustic bird houses, cuts out a whole level of skill, reducing the need for knowledge once regarded as vital: seed sowing, potting on, hardening off, etc. It may simply be that the emphasis on design, fashion and looks has simply driven out knowledge and skill from books and magazines. There is also the argument, often made with regard to all sorts of things, that wider contemporary trends downplay the importance of knowledge and the acquiring of skills; of this I am sceptical, seeing how so many have taken on board so willingly a whole range of computer skills, to say nothing of the popularity of skills-orientated cookery programmes.
A distinct sub-section of the vast array of consumer goodies on sale is retro. Garden consumer publications and advertising in particular used to stress the scientific credentials of whatever they promoted. No more. It seems, looking at much that is on for sale, that the fact that your grandmother/father sowed this seed variety, used this hoe design or that material for labels makes it somehow better. Some might argue that some heritage products are more sustainable (another one for the terracotta versus plastic pot debate), but on the whole there are good reasons why we have moved on. Wooden seed trays particularly annoy – as they are so much more difficult to sterilise than plastic and can provide a home for all sorts of fungal rots to kill your seedlings; a good example of the sheer ignorance of the manufacturers and promotors of retro.
The decline in respect for science in the garden world has gone hand in hand with the rise of both retro-gardening and ‘green’ gardening. One of the ironies (and tragedies) of ecological politics and its associated green consumer culture is that many of its most fervent believers are quite open in their hostility to science, or are clearly scientifically illiterate. The faith in heritage/heirloom links with a romantic belief in the past as having been a better time, we all know that is rubbish (slums, disease, oppression etc.) but it does not stop many looking back a century or so through rose-tinted spectacles.
Wildlife gardening, native plants, sustainability etc. has been the most important revolution in the garden world over the last couple of decades, and a huge amount of good has come out of these new movements, but they have also, needless to say, unleashed a whole wave of consumer goodies for us to be persuaded to spend our money on. I cannot but help there is a real cynicism here – “buy this product and help save the planet”. It is difficult for the garden media to do an honest job of judging the sustainability of much this product range for the usual reason of scaring away advertisers (I was actually told this by editors more than once, most outrageously by one as grounds for turning down my suggestion of a story on Indian ‘natural’ paving stone and slavery).
Dealing with problems: pests, diseases and weeds, seems to be a particular gap in the current range of garden books and magazine features. Attitudes of course have changed, as we have become much more relaxed about pests and diseases on ornamentals and chemical treatments have been widely discredited, or banned (possibly by an overcautious European Union). However having a sensible discussion about problems has been made much more difficult by the way the organic movement have driven forward a kind of stifling ‘political correctness’ i.e. we daren’t recommend herbicides or pesticides of any kind for fear of being pilloried or have copy rejected by editors and publishers who do not actually understand the issues and respond to the hypocrisy of the current climate (i.e. only a small minority buy organic from the shops but many more express hostility to the crop protection products that puts the food in their supermarket trolleys at a reasonable price).
More fundamentally though I worry that the design focus of much of the past few years and the ‘lifestyle’ focus (‘lifestyle’ is one of those words which seems forever to be condemned to be enclosed within inverted commas) of the publishing industry has resulted in a huge loss of knowledge and skills in gardening. It is not in the interest of consumer and sales driven approaches to anything to stress challenges or the skills needed to overcome them.
Walking around allotments or looking newly made vegetable gardens I have noticed something – the new generation of veg growers are often curiously unambitious. A solidly-constructed raised bed (the ones that really annoy me are the ones that use railway sleeper size timber) is home to what their grandfather’s generation would have regarded as a quarter row of cabbages and a mere smattering of lettuce. The actual amount of produce from many of these plots is so small, such a token, it seems as if the person concerned likes the idea of veg growing, but primarily needs to prove to themselves that they can do it (and so make them a better person in the process), show off to their friends, both the veg and the haloes around their heads – rather than actually make a substantial contribution to the household budget. If they set themselves low targets, then losses to pests, or low productivity does not really matter.
The confluence of all the above combine to push gardening into being a feel-good activity, an activity that stresses relaxation, consumption and self-satisfaction, not thinking (and certainly not using one’s critical faculties) and a romantic longing for a wholesome, and simpler lifestyle. Gardening as morally-improving escapism (accompanied by the sound of credit card numbers being keyed in). The modern garden-consumer desperately wants to make the world a better place and is all too easily persuaded that they can do by the expenditure of yet more money.
Gardening should be relaxing, but to do it well is also challenging – I can’t help feeling that much current garden literature does not face up to this, or to the immense satisfaction and sense of self-worth we get from taking on challenges and succeeding. We don’t want to go back to the old days of the bossy old garden-writer, oblivious to design and aesthetic questions, but I do wish we could celebrate the joys of gardening at the same time as inform, advise and explain.
* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners – currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********

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Overwatering the desert? Planting in Dubai.

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Modern public spaces allow for new forms of social interaction
Just spent a couple of days in Dubai (on the way back from India) with Fareena Khaliq, a colleague I had originally made contact with through the Landscape Dept. at Sheffield. She works here running a landscape design and maintenance company. It has been a great opportunity to think through what planting design can do in the Middle East, and in desert environments more generally. We also met up with Kamelia Zaal, the designer of last year’s Chelsea garden ‘The Beauty of Islam’.
Lots of questions. How do you make a garden or public planting which requires minimum irrigation but which performs visually? How do you make gardens for a population with no history or culture of gardening? How can the traditional Islamic garden be re-interpreted?
First – some background. I find Dubai a strange place. Superficially ultra modern with its skyline which looks like an architecture student’s models have all come to life, it is in many ways a traditional family autocracy, run in a relatively benign fashion (in comparison with some of the other family-run countries in the neighbourhood!), with 80% of the population as non-citizens, simply here to work, and therefore with no real stake in the place – a set-up unlike anywhere else in the world. It is utterly unsustainable in its power and water consumption. However, it runs very smoothly and is the sort of place where experiments are possible as technical and design innovation is highly prized, and as perhaps the ultimate meeting place of east and west, tradition and modernity, it may yet surprise us.
A scene at the very successful and peaceful Al Barari location using recycled water. The remainder of the pictures show here as well.
There are public landscapes here which many of us westerners would take for granted, but which are not necessarily part of Middle Eastern culture, like public parks, and cafes in landscaped retail environments. These are not the male-dominated spaces they might be in many Muslim countries. and it was great to see a lot of traditionally-dressed women in groups around after dark, even some on their own. I can’t help the feeling that public landscaping is playing a role here in developing more relaxed social settings than you might expect in the region.
The planting is generally desperately unimaginative and insanely unsustainble, grass and clipped bougainvillea would you believe! Fareena says that she wants to “bring forth solutions in the public and the private realm that use a mix of native and adapted flora – planting that is robust and varied- hence ecologically rich and still suitable to the local clime”. But, she is limited by the desire of many clients for greenery and as so often the case, the availability of plants from nurseries is very limited. There is a rich regional desert flora but it lacks the lush look that clients want, so nurseries are in no hurry to grow it.
Which brings us back to the Islamic garden, which is traditionally an enclosed space, with flowing water in formal rills and lush planting – everything which the desert is not, a vision of paradise, in a metaphorical and spiritual sense. This model is ideal for the way people live in the Middle East, which is very family-centred and behind high walls (this mentality, with the implication that no-one outside the wall can be trusted, arguably lies behind the extreme dysfunctionality of some Middle Eastern societies, the political results of which we are constantly reminded). The Mughal gardens of northern India and Pakistan take this concept and expand it, but they still remain fatally dependent on water.
One way forward was shown by a visit to Al-Barari, an gated residential community developed by local designer Kamelia Zaal, who made a garden for Chelsea last year (The Beauty of Islam). With its dense blended mix of trees and shrubs, narrow water ways and intimate views, it seemed the perfect modern naturalistic take on the Islamic garden concept, a magical oasis. Kamelia’s theme has been the spread of Arab culture and Islamic faith through trade, and the plant origins very much reflect this. It is of course an upmarket development, but as so often in the world of art and design, elite places can often help inspire and facilitate other, more democratic, developments. The water is in fact derived from treated waste so is sustainable on that level. There is a great deal of birdlife to complete the oasis feeling.

Shared public spaces are something of a novelty, and Dubai’s having them a sure sign of progress, but in dry environments they cannot have anything of the lushness of the traditional Islamic garden beyond very small areas. To us, the obvious solution is to use local drought-tolerant flora, but to locals this has little value, and is not appreciated. In addition, Fareena explained to me that many of the spiky desert plants used in dry garden design in the Mediterranean or the Americas, like agaves and yuccas, are perceived negatively – as aggressive and unattractive. Working out how to turn people on to the beauty of drought-tolerant plants looks like a challenge but has to be the only way. There is a widespread nostalgia here for the traditional desert-based lifestyle of the Emiratis now long since lost, now that the palm leaf hut has been swapped for the air-conditioned villa in two generations. Perhaps appeals to traditional landscapes may be the way forward.

* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners – currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********

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The lost plants of the Victorian golden age

The Victorian era was a true golden age for gardeners in Britain. Looking through the magazines, books and nursery catalogues of the period, it is clear that a vast array of plants that were widely grown then have now all but disappeared. Most of these were hothouse plants – our ancestors could grow them because coal was absurdly cheap, as was the labour to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the boiler.
for more see……..

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The aliens (might be) landing !

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Rhododendron x superponticum dominating waterside habitat in Yorkshire. Maybe the otters like it for cover but I can’t imagine much else does.

I wrote the following for Pro-Landscaper magazine, last year – i.e. for a British Isles audience. So please realise that issues may well be very different elsewhere. . . . .

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The press love a good invasive alien story. Shades of martians landing and/or man-eating triffids on the prowl. There is often a hint of racism too, invasive plants almost inevitably come with national labels: Japanese knotweed, Spanish bluebells, and the language used to describe them is not unlike that used to discuss immigration issues in certain quarters.
The landscape industry is very much in the front line here, both in preventing the use and spread of invasive aliens and sometimes in their control too. But how much of a problem do we really face?
I would argue that the invasive alien story is in danger of being grossly exaggerated, and those of us who work in horticulture and landscape need to keep a cool head. First of all, we need to realise how lucky we are. While some countries battle enormously damaging invasive species, Britain faces relatively few real problems. We have an amazingly aggressive natural grass flora, which has evolved to benefit from the exceptionally long growing season we have – the result of our being on the north-west fringes of Europe, facing the warm waters of the Atlantic. Our wild grasses have an incredible ability to spread, propagate and suffocate most of what comes in their way. They may create problems in establishing garden or landscape plants but they are a great defence against invaders.
So what problems do we face? The obvious answer is Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica); the press love stories about it, and the government has responded by enacting legislation that potentially adds considerable costs to landscaping and construction projects. However, it does not seed, it is suffocated by trees, is easily killed with herbicide, eliminated by mowing and makes little headway against grasses. Neither does it kill small dogs (unlike, we are told, seagulls). It is a big problem in a very small number of localities. The main reason for its spread has been the moving of infected soil, something entirely preventable. It is important to realise it is not going to engulf the country.
‘Perspective’ is one thing which those who get very excited by invasive aliens find difficult to maintain. Particularly important is to recognise the difference between the spread of a species and it being problematic. Buddleia is a good example. Its appearance on buildings worries property owners (rightfully) but its extensive seeding into waste ground creates an impression that it has capacity to spread. This is liable to alarm those with a dogmatic understanding of ecology, who believe that only native species have a right to be here. Given time, buddleia gets suppressed by native grasses and in particular by our native brambles and shrubs. However even at its most vigorous it grows alongside other plants (and of course butterflies love it).
The plants we need to worry about are those that 1) do not get suppressed by our native vegetation, and 2) get the better of it, even though these may only be problems in particular places. Rhododendron x superponticumis a good example of something that does both of these; spreading even in the shade of woodland and suppressing almost anything which grows in its dense shade. Certain cotoneasters might be another, but only with regard to very localised habitats (cliff faces). With time many seemingly aggressive species decline, as local infective agents and pests discover them – there is evidence that this has happened with Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) in continental Europe. Given the costs and difficulties of eradication, keeping a cool head and focussing on identifying real problems, not headline-generating ones, is vital.
* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners – currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would ‘chip in’ (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********

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Hellebore troubles

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Hellebores can make such a huge impact as they flower so much earlier than anything else. Try cutting them though and they hang their heads so limply as to put you off ever trying again. The only way to cut them is to float them in water as in the picture above.
They are easy enough but I find that many of ours are dying out. Given my interest in long-term plant performance I have been monitoring this and discussing it with other gardeners. The consensus is that from about ten years onwards many do go into a decline. This is not surprising as they seed (or can do) so extensively which suggests something which is not going to be with us for ever. So, all the plants I paid such good money for from Ashwood Nurseries and Wendy Perry all those years ago are now pretty well vanished. They initially seeded well – I dug a load up and planted them out, leaving many others to grow in the bed.
The seedlings I have left, i.e. next to their parents, have never really taken off. Despite it looking like initially they would smother everything else, they have never gotten that big and are now beginning to die too. All I can think is that they cannot cope with the competition of the roots of the overgrown hedge behind them. The very best ones are right up the top where the hedge is further back. Elsewhere in the garden we have a few magnificent plants, but always well away from shade or tree roots.
So, a bit of a crisis for something that was always such a feature of the garden in late winter. The seedlings I had dug up seven or so years ago have done well, breeding relatively true from seed, so we have had some good plants to move elsewhere or give away. It was interesting to note however the difference in vigour and how this was linked to flower colour (genes on the same chromosome?). I had set out the seedlings in order of size in a nursery bed, and all the largest ones turned out to be red, which actually is the least interesting colour of all. The picotees seem particularly lacking in umph. In looking at this lot the other day, I realise that there is only one in the nursery bed left which was worth doing anything with, a very spotty white. So I divided it, feeling as if I was taking the plant’s life in my hands as they do not divide well, and you do end up doing terrible damage to them, crushing flowers and leaves as you do so. Hopefully the rather miserable looking divisions with a few leaves sticking out at odd angles will take. The roots are most active in the late winter, when they flower, so this is the best time to carry out this perilous operation.
These seedlings had originally been collected from around good plants, the seeds being so heavy that you can be pretty sure which plant a seedling has come from. I tried to find some more around good ones this year, but it is a struggle, and even when very small, the seedlings have very long roots and can be difficult to extricate from the ground.
I shall have to try to save seed again this year, but this is not easy, because as soon as it is ripe it seems to hurl itself out of the seed pods. I have tried tying little muslin bags (thanks to eBay I now have a whole packet of these) around the maturing pods but they are actually too small – I need the next size up.
Going to buy expensive seed from Ashwood or Jelitto or somebody is going to feel like a defeat, let alone having to take out a mortgage to buy new plants. So we shall have to develop a Hellebore Conservation Action Plan.

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