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Garden Diary September 2009
September 1st: What's in a Name?.

Helenium puberulum is a curiosity rather than a beauty with its stiffly branching, rather sparsely leafed stems and unusual flowers that are all cone and hardly any petal. IN the garden it is rather anonymous but flower arrangers' eyes light up when they see its symmetry and simple form. 

As an interesting species it is unlikely to ever be a big seller. However marketing machines soon got to work and Thompson and Morgan coined the trade name "Autumn Lollipop" and a novelty was born. One fellow nursery says children really like them (I hope they don't lick them - Heleniums are reasonably toxic and taste foul).

I've got nothing against enticing names for plants and "Autumn Lollipop" is far easier to remember than puberulum. 

As a nurseryman I wish plants had more accessible names - people love plants with names they can remember and pronounce and have some relevance to their lives (names, places, foods, whatever) 

As a collection holder I find it important to keep track of where plants have two names. This is not helped by The RHS Plant Finder which insists on having two entries for this one plant.

I'm not one to criticise spelling mistakes (glasshouses, stones, etc) but these cause no end of problems: Centaureas Jody and Jordy are identical but which is right? Helenium Lyndley was new in 2008 but is it really Wyndley?

Translating names can cause problems as well. If you study the very extensive catalogue of one well known mail order nursery you will find Heleniums "Rubinzwerg" and "Ruby Dwarf" (the translated name) as two separate entries at different prices!!! Helenium Gold Rush is sold as a new variety as it isn't listed in the plant finder but it is merely a translation of the 1950's variety Goldrausch.

What's in a name? An opportunity for nurserymen and a headache for collectors!

Peacock Butterlfly on Echinacea RubinsternSeptember 4th: Echinaceas - a Question of Hardiness

Echinacea purpurea Rubinstern is looking splendid in the garden at the moment and is really popular with the late butterflies like this lovely Peacock. The orange cones are full of nectar and smell lightly of honey on warm days.

Rubinstern is a development on the basic species that holds its petals out horizontally rather than down swept. 

Other the last few years a bewildering number of new cultivars and hybrids (between purpurea and paradoxa) have flooded the market. These have in general disappointed me - poor quality flowers, few flowers, slow to establish and, above all, not very hardy. 

So many people have told me that they lose these new Echinaceas regularly in the winter.

Lack of hardiness is not, I think, anything to do with cold. Its more to do with micro-propagated plants failing to establish and sulking as tiny root balls through the wet winter. 

Rubinstern and its white flowered cousin White Swan have always done well for us through the winter but these are likely to be grown from seed or divisions rather than micro-propagation resulting in a bigger, stronger, more vigorous rootball. Other species like pallida are fine for us as well. The yellow Echinacea paradoxa is fine in a well-drained sheltered spot. 

When buying Echinacea beware of a plant that consists of just a flower stem and very little "plant" at the base - in my view what you are seeing is the last gasp effort of a tiny, weak plant to produce seed before it gives up the ghost. Look for a good sized rootstock with a number of new leaf shoots at the base. If I had to try and keep a tiny plant through the winter I'd try cutting off the flower stem at its base and potting on to a larger pot with gritty compost. I'd keep the pot in a cold greenhouse, not forgetting to water occasionally. Oh, yes and I'd keep my fingers well and truly crossed!

Bidens aurea (heterophyllus) September 9th: Bidens heterophyllus or is it Bidens aurea?, or Hannay's Lemon Drop? What's in a Name Pt 2:

We had coveted Bidens Hannay's Lemon Drop for some time  - tall airy plants with masses of creamy lowers with a strong yellow blotch at the centre. "Where's the blotch?" I hear you ask. It seems the plant is quite variable and also likely to self seed resulting in plants with cream flowers, yellow flowers or the desired cream with yellow centre.  Looking at the flower you can see that it is a relative of the Coreopsis and also Cosmos and like these it thrives in reasonable (not too dry) soil and a sunny spot. It does run - less so in dry soils. We'd always known the basic plant as Bidens heterophyllus but the RHS Plant Finder now has it as Bidens aurea. This was the name of the sprawling plants with golden ("aurea") flowers used in hanging baskets etc. We think we'll stick to Biden's heterophyllus when introduce this to our range in 2010.

Miscanthus Silberfeder (Silver Feather) great for catcihng the rays of the autumn sunSeptember 11th: Ornamental grasses: beyond fashion

Grasses were all the fashion in the 1990's and nurseries that follow that sort of thing tell me they're out of fashion now. I'm not a follower of fashion: if a plant looked good 10 years ago it still looks good now. The tall autumn flowering grasses are just made for catching the low, slanting rays of the autumn sun. 

Miscanthus are perhaps the best examples. For us they grow well in pretty dry soil in a sunny spot. Having said that, in a large container they tend to dry out too easily and end up with brown leaves. Flowering time depends on variety. Early ones like China and Sirene start in August, Silberfeder (Silver Feather) (on the right) starts in September as does Kleiner Siblerspinne (Little Silver Spider). On the whole the flowers are pretty similar (except to a collector who will see and enjoy the subtle differences). The leaves are attractively striped, either long ways or in bands. They make bold clumps and a best given a bit of space around them to spread into.

Molinia prefers moist soil but makes do with dry sand with us and seems to do pretty well. The flower heads are less showy than Miscanthus but are of fine shape , texture and form. The leaves give autumn colours in most cases. The tall Windspeil is great planted as a line to divide a bed. The shorter (3ft) Strahlenquelle (Shining Fountain?) adds interest at the front of a border, also best planted as a group. 

We are increasing our range of grasses over the next couple of years because in our view beauty is beyond fashion.

Schizostylis Professor Barnard with Elymus magellanicusSeptember 15th: Late Bloomers - Schizostylis

Schizostylis (Kaffir Lily) are just coming into bloom. All are some variation in a pink theme. Some like Professor Barnard here are pure pink. The basic species (S. coccinea) and the variety Major are pinkish red. Pink Princess is pinkish white. The variety Alba is nearly white but very weak growing in our experience. They start flowering now and go into the autumn and even winter in mild situations.  

They are about 2ft - 2ft 9in tall depending on variety and grow rather like a small Gladioli stem with a flower more like a crocus.

They spread to fill a space but are hungry feeders - so replant in revitalised soil every few years. They grow well in normal (even dry soil) but also like damp even boggy conditions. 

What they don't like is freezing of the roots as we found to our cost last winter when we lost all of our potted stock. 

Here they stand out well against the backdrop of the blue grass - Elymus Magellanicus.  There is some argument about the true name of this grass - ours is fairly upright (not sprawling) and clump forming (not running at all). The leaves will turn straw yellow in winter.

Kniphofia caulescens a lovely late bloomerSeptember 16th: Getting Kniphofia ready for winter

I often get asked what gardeners should do with Kniphofia (Red Hot Poker / Torch Lily) to ensure they get through winter. Firstly there is no way to "ensure" winter survival: they are Southern African plants and it shouldn't be a surprise to lose some in cold and wet winters.

I always leave all the leaf on unless it gets slimy through too much cold/wet when it is best to remove it.  Old gardening books suggest tying the leaves up into a tepee type affair and this is supposed to keep the rain off of the crowns - my dad always did this on the claggy London clay of our garden. I don't bother with this but I do make sure I leave the dead brown leaves on the short trunks of the lovely Kniphofia caulescens pictured flowering today in our garden as this insulates the vulnerable trunk somewhat.

Whatever your chosen method you will need to remove dead leaves in late winter / early spring before too much new growth. You will also find lots of snails hiding in the clumps and this makes a good opportunity to destroy them en masse.

Kniphofia largely grow in boggy ground in the wild, so in the summer give them plenty of water.

Kniphofia come in many colours and sizes. My top 5 are:

Tawny King - Tawny orange and cream, very large flowers in June - July. Very hardy and reliable

rooperi - globular red heads turning yellow as they age. Large imposing plants flowering large August into October.

caulescens - glaucous leaves growing on short trunks.

Jonathan - giant dusky orange heads

Scorched Corn - tight heads looking like a barbequed corn cob.

Knautia mascedonica Mars Midget is a garden-worthy dwarf formSeptember 18th: Dwarf plants

I'm not always enamoured of dwarf versions of garden plants as they often look stunted with flowers out of scale with the rest of the plant. 

However one exception is Knautia macedonica Mars Midget (right) which is only 1ft 6in - 2ft tall compared to the 3ft - 3ft 6in of the standard species which is best suited to naturalistic or wild plantings where its somewhat lanky growth looks great. Mars Midget is really suitable for the front of a more formal bed or border. 

One thing to beware of if buying "dwarf plants" at the garden centre as that industrial production of plants includes feeding them with growth regulators that keep them short so they fit on the shelved trolleys used to transport them.  Also some seedsmen sell "dwarf" varieties that may be short in their first year before reaching full, tall size in their second season. They excuse this by saying that the plants flower in the first year at a dwarf height. Which is great but a little economical with the truth.

Yew Tree House, HankelowSeptember 20th: Last NGS Day of 2009.

Sunday Morning and the day is sunny and calm, just right for our last day of opening for the National Garden Scheme (Yellow Book) in 2009. This has been our first year and by the end of the day we have welcomed our 774th and last visitor of the year and raised just over £2000 for charity. 

Opening to the public is a great spur to get things done and we have great plans for next year giving us a lot of hard work over the winter.

Now is a good time to reflect on the garden and make plans for next year. 

I make lists of:

- Plant combinations i want to try after seeing plants flowering at the same time

- Likewise plant combinations that didn't work

- Plants that don't do enough for the space they take or just aren't suited to our garden

- Flowering heights and times of plants - these are always different to the nursery description - not (usually) through any bad intention but because plants perform differently in every garden. 

- New plants I want to try.

Aster x.frikartii MonchSeptember 21st: Asters without mildew.

As we approach Michaelmas (29th September) Asters are coming into their own. Whilst the novi-belgii type have lovely flowers I can't prevent them from becoming covered in powdery mildew (white coating to the leaves caused by a fungus) whilst distorts the leaves unless I spray repeatedly with fungicide.  

Some Asters never (or nearly never) get this problem. The Frikartii hybrids like Mônch on the right never get mildew and have the added bonus of flowering from late July onwards. 

This year Ochtendgloren (October Glory) has been mildew free as has Vasterival.

Aster laevis Calliope with its purple-black stems is normally free of mildew but this year because it has been so very dry it has got a bit but this is not stopping it from flowering well.

Asters are best divided in the spring - autumn divisions often fail to establish. Many types spread by surface stems to form fairly large colonies. Mônch and its siblings is a clump former needing to be broken down into separate plantlets. 

Some Asters are great for dry shade - varieties of macrophylla and schreberi. These all spread to form good sized clumps.


Monarda seedheads in SeptemberSeptember 24th: Preparing for winter interest

Many perennials leave their skeletons standing to provide structural interest through the winter. Now is the time I have to take some tough decisions about whether to cut back and hope for more flower or leave deadheads to last through the winter. "Why can't you have both?" I hear you ask. Take Monarda (Bee Balm or Bergamot) for example. Here you can see a fine display of tall (3ft ish) seed heads left from the midsummer flowering. There are new green shoots appearing low down on the plants and these may flower in October if we have a good autumn (more rain please!); but these late flowers will be shorter, smaller and on less robust stems and so may not last long through winter. 

For some plants there is no need to make a choice. Take Morina (Whorlflower) for instance. These are currently bearing fresh flowers, maturing (green) seed heads from an August flowering and dry brown seed heads from a June flowering. 

Some plants like Heleniums don't have attractive winter form but will respond to dead heading now (provided we eventually get some rain) so don't be shy in cutting back to a new bud.

Autumn sun lights up our gardenSeptember 25th Autumn Light

Designers and garden books often talk about catching the low-angled sun in autumn and its warm colours. This photo taken at about 8.30am shows how translucent and airy flower heads seem to glow with the slanting rays of early morning sun. 

Grasses, Eryngium and Verbena all contribute to the effect. 


Centaurea dealbata Steenbergii in late September September 26th: Second time around

Many early flowering perennials, like Centaurea dealbata Steenbergii here, are getting into flower again now, After flowering in May - July I cut old stems to the ground. As we are likely to have a ground frost after clear nights now its worth having pieces of garden fleece to drape over more tender plants to protect the blooms. Centaureas are tough and don't need this treatment.  Other plants having another go include Geranium sanguineum varieties .Cephalaria gigantea it would be blooming now if I had remembered to deadhead it! in July: as I explain in my talk on creating a late flowering perennial garden, preparation is all!


Lepechinia hastata (Pitcher Sage)  is slightly tender but a reliable late bloomer.September 30th: Try a little tenderness

Lepechinia hastata (Pitcher Sage) comes from California, Hawaii and around the Pacific coastlines. It has highly and pleasantly aromatic leaves with a complex aroma of lemon, menthol and sage. It can grow happily in sun or shade. The tall spires of purple tubular flowers last the whole summer and are still looking good now as we roll into autumn.  

It is slightly tender - we lost some last year but in other years it has been okay. Its wise to take cuttings or pot up offsets to keep in cold greenhouse or cold frame and to save seed to sow in early spring.

Many slightly tender plants are valued for their late blooming, for example the New World Salvias are stars of our garden right now. You will see them at Garden Centres and nurseries tempting you to buy them.  I've just bought a lovely Salvia called "Shame" aptly named as it looks like a pale skin blushing with embarrassment I don't plant anything that is not bone hardy now. I find its better to keep them in the cold greenhouse and plant out in May. Once they have got established they can go through the winter successfully.

It is fine to plant most perennials now (in Cheshire at least - some parts of the UK are much colder) provided they are fully hardy and well established clumps or pots. Remember to keep them watered.