Thursday, 30 June 2011

Yellow Rattle...

For some, endless time and money can be spent in keeping lawns pure, producing the ultimate in soft, green velvet carpeting, set off to perfection in alternating stripes. Wondrous to behold, and an admirable garden element for those with the energy and inclination to produce it. 
For the rest of us, our grass is most likely already sharing shoot space with daisies, buttercups, clover and a host of other ‘weeds.’ Pretty enough in season perhaps and a hardwearing, ground-covering green foil to our other plantings. But, if we are looking for an environment enhancing change, how do we go from this to the much celebrated wildlife friendly, ‘Wildflower Meadow?’ 
Letting the grass grow longer might seem the obvious, labour saving way ahead. But those that try the no-mow technique soon discover docks, nettles and thistles will take over. Thick, rank grass growth is encouraged too, which proves an impenetrably dense barrier to fine flower establishment. The problem is too much nutrient availability, and the solution is usually years of hard work. Strimming or scything and the regular removal of all top growth eventually thins out the grass and reduces fertility enough for the prettier native flora to begin to thrive.
There is however something of a shortcut that can be taken in this otherwise lengthy and exhausting process. Encouraging the lovely wild flower Rhinanthus minor or ‘Yellow Rattle’ into the mix is the answer. This pretty annual grows to about one foot tall and is worthy of your interest for its bright yellow flowers alone. They are sometimes described as ‘baby canaries clambering out of their shells.’ See them and you’ll see what I mean. 
Although innocent enough on top, it is underground where its story gets interesting... Yellow Rattle is a vampire at heart, stealing sustenance from its neighbours. Its roots penetrate the surrounding grass, taking nutrients and weakening them considerably, thus providing the essential openings for all the other wonderful wildflowers we are seeking to encourage.
It is an easy enough plant to get growing. Just sprinkle the seeds about in September and let the winter do the rest as they need a good long period of cold before coming up in the spring. As its name suggests, Yellow Rattle’s seeds rattle out of their pods when ripe at hay-making time. Thereafter, each year they will go on to do the double duty of slowing down grass growth and decorating the wildflower meadow...

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Lilium pyrenaicum...

Lilies can be some of the most opulent and extravagant flowers in the garden. Their huge, waxy pendant blooms often providing a deep, overpoweringly heady, sweet scent. Gorgeous illustrations in the bulb catalogues prove almost irresistible.

But despite all that potential, out in the garden after the first year’s flowering they sometimes dwindle and in time disappear altogether. That may leave room to try another variety, but I prefer something with a little more staying power, something that will hold its own in the competitive battle that is border life.

So, Lilium pyrenaicum is the one for me. Originally it was native to the hills of southern Europe, as hinted at in the ‘Pyrenees’ part of its name. This form is truly tried and tested here however and has thrived in our gardens since Elizabethan times. It copes with conditions in the UK so well that it has even escaped the confines of domestication and successfully naturalised, becoming part of the British wild flower scene.
Even early in the season, its foliage makes a worthy garden feature. Its long narrow, silver edged leaves are held in tight whorls around the stem giving the impression, as they rise up in spring, of dense bright green bottle brushes. It is a hardy and sturdy grower reaching about two to three feet high by early summer.
The flowers themselves are undoubtedly beautiful and retain a delicacy that can sometimes be missing in the high powered, highly bred, over large hybrids. They are ‘turk’s-cap’ in form with bright, vivid yellow petals, curving back and up. They are flecked and speckled deep maroon back into the throat enclosing the prominent central group of orange stamens. Up to a dozen flowers can be held on individual stems, but it is much more usual to see just two or three. Impressive enough, as the plants form dense clumps of such stems in time.
These ‘Pyrenean Lilies’ or ‘Yellow Turk’s-cap Lilies’ as they are sometimes known, are said to have a somewhat unpleasant scent. But I have been hard pressed to pick up any aroma at all, even on the closest of encounters. To me, they are winners in every way, and given good soil with good drainage will go on giving their wonderful garden performance for years...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum'

Thistles are some of the most pernicious and obnoxious weeds ever invented. The standard farmer’s nightmare version spreads far and wide via tough underground roving roots, and sends forth clouds of airborne seeds to colonise pastures new. Its fiercely prickly nature ensures grazing animals won’t touch it, and its ambitions for world domination have seen laws passed against it. Approaching them in anything less than stout boots, thornproof clothing and leather gloves is not to be recommended.

There are thankfully a few garden-worthy species of thistle however and a particular beauty can be found in borders right now. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ is its official latin name, and although quite a mouthful, it is worth getting it right as this is a plant any border would benefit from. It has all the best thistle-like features without any of the downsides...

The mounds of soft green, jagged foliage although appearing a little dangerous at first, are in fact only softly prickly and will do little more than tickle the ungloved hand. It also has none of the spreading, evil empire building aspirations of its relatives. This gentle plant slowly builds a clump without straying from where it is placed. Even its ample feathery seed heads when split and blown upon the wind give rise to no new colonies. In the garden it certainly gets top marks for good behaviour.

It is its flowers though that earn this thistle a place in the border. Strong, leafless stems rise up to a height of about four feet and are topped off with neat groups of deep magenta red flowers. Their bristling, tightly trimmed forms make perfect landing pads for bees and butterflies which seem magnetically drawn to their charms.
The ‘see through’ and statuesque nature of the flower stems mean that this is a plant that can be usefully deployed at the front of the border, as well as further back. It also flowers on and on from an early summer start, particularly if dead-headed early in the season. Later flowers can be left to develop fine seed-heads to entertain the goldfinches.
With most thistles, their presence in the garden can only lead to regret and resentment, but given rich, moist soil and a sunny position, this one, Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum,’ can be richly rewarding...

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Stachys macrantha...

I love to see labels in other peoples gardens, but hate them in my own. 

In educational settings, botanic gardens and other special spaces for learning, they are essential. But, where beauty and atmosphere is the main aim, a graveyard of white stick labels amongst the plantings can be overwhelming. Though informative, reading off plant names is usually a distraction from ‘reading’ the bigger picture.

At Levens, where labeling is kept to a minimum, the truly dedicated will often pick up our plant list which details in botanical latin the names and locations of all that grows in the garden. The more casually curious however seek out a gardener to identify their particular plant of interest. 
Its good to chat with our visitors, to get feedback on those plants and plantings that are most effective that week. But, the art of describing favoured foliage or flowers is notoriously difficult and often the best way to get to an identity is to get an idea of where it was seen. Nowadays too, it is made all the easier by the advent of the digital camera and camera-phones. A quickly captured image on one of these is worth a thousand words.

So, what plant is catching the eye right now in the borders? Which flower has enough wow factor to warrant knowing by name? Well, it used to be most often described to us as “That Hyacinth-like flower,” but of course it’s a little too late for spring bulbs. The plant in question actually goes by the scientific name of ‘Stachys macrantha’ or sometimes more popularly as ‘Big Betony.’
This low growing herbaceous plant carpets the ground well with dark green, crinkly leaves through much of the year. In early summer they produce upright, angular stemmed spikes set with beautiful whorls of large, lipped flowers in shades of pinky purple. This striking display at about eighteen inches high is ideal for the front of the border. Later, after the flowers have faded, the spent flower stems can be cut away leaving that attractive and tidy carpet of ground covering green leaves.

Interestingly, its close relative and the ‘Stachys’ most people would associate with gardens is ‘Lambs Lugs’ or ‘Stachys lanata’ whose woolly white leaves and look are a world away from the ‘Stachys macrantha’ described above. So remember, when seeking out a plant by name, it’s the full scientific name that matters...

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Ornamental Onions...

How well do you know your onions?
With over 500 different species and many more cultivated varieties it is unlikely any of us will have intimate knowledge of them all. But, the ‘Alliums,’ as the group is more scientifically known contain quite a few plants we will be familiar with. 

No kitchen, or indeed kitchen garden would be complete without onions and leeks of course, stalwarts of a huge range of recipes. The slightly more adventurous chef and gardener might also be sprinkling in some home grown chives to mildly flavour a meal or crushing the much more pungent garlic cloves into the mix. 

Back out in the garden, battle may be done with that attractive native flower and pernicious weed, wild garlic. But, between those fully edible, vegetable plot favourites and the downright weedy, there’s a wide selection of ornamental onions good enough to grace the finest of gardens.
Ordinary onions and leeks, if let go to seed, offer a hint of what can be achieved in their violet purple, golf ball sized flower clusters. But the best of the increasingly popular flower garden Alliums far exceed that...
My own favourite is Allium christophii which produces huge, airy football sized flower heads on top of two foot stems. Like most of the group, these take the form of spherical bursts of colour. Just like mini fireworks frozen in mid explosion, the hundreds of thin wiry flower stems terminate in bright stars. As summer’s heat increases, they fade from violet blue to silvery grey but retain their structure, adding amazing dried flower globes to the border scene.
Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ is also superb. In this variety, the round flower heads are about the size of a tennis ball and rise strongly to about three feet in the border. The flowers are dense packed and a deep purple blue.
There are many more lovely forms to choose from, mostly in that violet blue range, but also including the low growing white flowered ‘Allium karataviense’ with broad grey foliage and the bright yellow ‘Allium moly’.
All Alliums grow from bulbs and reliably reappear each year. Although their leaves often die back as they come into flower, these can be easily hidden by skillful planting.
The aroma of these ornamental onions may rule them out for cut flower use indoors, but as part of a border display, they are unsurpassed.

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