Thursday, 24 March 2011

Box Blight...

“The only constant is change,” so said a Greek philosopher 2,500 years ago. It still stands true today, in gardens as much as the rest of life. The seasons of course naturally bring by turn that cycle of bud break, flower, fruiting and leaf fall. But we as gardeners play our part too with our constant intervention. Through time, planting, pruning and generally tending to our plots, changes all. 


Even the most celebrated, seemingly static elements of historic gardens evolve. Constant, perhaps in our eyes, but growing and changing almost imperceptibly down through the centuries.
Levens’ low box hedges have long outlined, in rich green, the garden’s intricate patterns. Enduring, though not fixed, they have been carefully trimmed each season for generations. They are lifted, lowered and re-set every fifty years, maintaining through time their creator’s original vision for the parterre. Due for renewal again, two years ago this symbol of Levens’ heritage faced a fresh challenge. The new, virulent fungal disease, ‘Box Blight’ had struck. 
Unknown a decade ago, this predatory pathogen has rattled through the great gardens of Europe, laying low great swathes of box, a previously unassailable green hedger. Known as ‘The Black Death,’ for the rapidity of infection, the tell tale darkening of the foliage, and the certainty of a speedy demise. This particular plant plague almost always proves terminal. 
Fungicides prove no match to this natural killer. Within 3 hours the spores can germinate and penetrate plant tissue, and within 3 days it can be all over. It affects all forms of Box, but the low hedging sort has the thinnest leaf, so is the first to go. We were devastated when we first saw it, but in gardening we learn to be philosophical. There are no such things as problems, only opportunities...

Every generation faces its own challenges, and here at Levens it will be finding a worthy successor to Box for our low hedging. Front runners at present are the small leaved evergreens ‘Ilex crenata’ and ‘Teucrium x lucidrys’  though we have quite a few more on our list of possibles. 
Watch TV gardener Carol Klein help us replace the first short stretch tonight. (Gardener’s World, BBC2 Friday 8:30pm). That’s 2 metres done, 2 kilometres to go!  
As the man said, “The only constant is change....”

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Garden Inspiration...

As warmer, brighter, longer days gradually roll in, our enthusiasm for getting out into the garden grows too. But, beyond the basic tidying what should we do next? Where are we going with our gardens? Well, in this column I might highlight some new plants worth a try and give a few suggestions for jobs to do this week. But, to get the bigger picture, our gardening inspiration needs to filter through in many forms...


Telly could be top of your list with ‘Gardeners’ World’ or one of the other easy viewing Friday night offerings. The long running tried and tested formula of ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ on Radio 4 might make an appropriate soundtrack to Sunday lunch washing up. Perhaps perusing the monthly magazines, sunday supplements and glossy gardening books is your chosen route to garden knowledge. Though, if you watched, listened and read all that is produced, there would be little time left to indulge in the real thing!

Garden centres and local nurseries are always stocked brim-full of tempting goodies to take home and grow. A visit to them can be an exciting, if expensive entertainment particularly if the urge to invest runs strong and self control is weak. A cheaper pursuit, particularly if you are in search of garden ideas rather than the plants themselves is just to keep your eyes open whilst out and about. The front gardens we pass every day are packed full of interest. But as a note on road safety, this sport is better indulged in as pedestrians or passengers. Drivers should keep their eyes strictly on the road ahead!
Best of all, is spending time in other gardens. Immersed in the atmosphere and enjoying the intimacy and character that has been created. All the big gardens of the region will be opening again very soon and as the best are right on our doorstep, season passes are a great way of getting to know them as they evolve through the coming months.

My own favourites though have to be the ‘Yellow Book Gardens’, open under the National Gardens Scheme. These are smaller, normally private gardens opening for charity perhaps just once or twice a year. Horticultural inspiration in spadefuls awaits, with very often the finest of afternoon teas, delicious homemade cakes and homegrown plants for sale too. Discover for yourself these personal, particular visions of garden perfection. What greater examples of garden originality and artistry could there be?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Cornelian Cherry...

Very soon, our gardens and countryside will be awash with gold.... From the tiny, wild, starry celandine flowers studding the fields to the wonderful primroses decorating wayside and woodland clearings and tumbling down shady stream banking. From the cheerful waving narcissus and daffodils flooding out from gardens and grass verges across the county to those bold and brassy forsythia bushes. Everywhere we look, the colour yellow is the floral theme signaling the unmistakable first signs of spring.

Ushering all this in however, as late winter morphs gradually into early spring from February through early March is the Cornelian Cherry, or ‘Cornus mas’ as it is more scientifically known. This large shrub has none of the brash, in your face, full on bling of those forsythias we are so familiar with. Instead, its flowers are smaller and widely spaced on the bare branches giving a much more naturalistic look. 
It is however no less a gardenworthy plant for all that. It season of beauty begins well before our other spring stalwarts get under way and its sight will cheer and warm the heart on the coldest of days. The individual four petalled flowers may be tiny, but they are effectively and tightly grouped in small clusters of a dozen or more. Their slight fragrance and early and easily available nectar make them an irresistible draw for bees breaking a long winter’s enforced dormancy.
Through summer, the plant merges more into the background, and with its open branching nature is a good candidate for growing a summer flowering clematis over. This can be cut back to the ground and cleared away in readiness for the shrub’s true season of glory. It is completely hardy and unfussy as to conditions, but given a choice, the light flowers will shine out best in front of a dark background, such as evergreen trees, holly or yew hedging.

A scattering of small red cherry like fruits will appear by early autumn and although they are edible, they may not be entirely to our taste, or plentiful enough to do much with. In its native southern and eastern europe where its fruiting may be much more prolific, they are an ingredient of many a regional drink and delicacy. Here however, we can be content with these ‘Cornus mas’ as discreet and understated natural introductions to the dazzling spring blaze of gold that is just around the corner...

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Winter Flowering Clematis...

Everyone loves Clematis and there must be one of these delightful climbers to suit every particular taste. There are hundreds of different varieties to choose from in all possible colours and character. Flowers that can range from dinner-plate sized summer beauties to tiny nodding bells. From tree swamping, telegraph pole smothering, wall hiding blankets of foliage and flower to much more modest scramblers. Even if you were so fussy that none took your fancy today, with dozens of newly bred varieties coming to market each season, it surely would not be long before one did.


The most commonly seen and certainly the most noticeable are the extensive and rampant spring flowering ‘montanas,’ producing avalanches of white or pinkish bloom in May. Through summer and into autumn it is then the turn of the showiest cultivars with unbelievably large flowers, and from start to finish the many daintier and more delicately beautiful natural species ably fill in the gaps. 

There is even a winter flowering form. Clematis cirrhosa ‘Balearica’ is its name, and its first flowers were opening way back in November with fresh ones still coming out now. As the scientific name implies, it is originally from the Balearic Islands, or Mallorca to you and me. There, it enjoys stronger winter sunshine and a milder climate than we can give it, but happily it does not object too strongly to our cold grey skies. The deep snow and deep-freeze conditions here just before Christmas stopped those flowers for a while, but our more standard winter chill it takes in its stride.
The small, nodding flowers hang down in groups from the leaf axils on thin flexible stems. Four petalled, they are creamy on the outside and attractively spotted with reddish brown speckles within. They reward closer inspection by looking up into their pendant bells so are best planted on a pergola, over a path or near a doorway. They have a faint citrus fragrance and both discerning gardeners and the earliest bees will seek them out on sunny days.
These evergreen winter flowering clematis also have the advantage of prettily cut, ferny foliage which takes on beautiful bronzish hues in the coldest weather. When, after many years they eventually become an impenetrable tangle of twigs too high to enjoy, simply cut everything off after flowering and they will helpfully and reliably start out afresh and be back in bloom for Christmas.
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