Autumnal gales are upon us and blowing the last leaves off the trees. This year the lovely flame-like scarlet show of my Stewartia was over so quickly and many of the trees also lost their leaves quickly in the storms. The Liquidamber ‘Slender Silhouette’ is the exception and still looks fantastic. The foliage of herbaceous plants like hydrangea have been much better value. The quercifolia still has good red leaves, ‘Sanguine Merveille’ beautiful purple, and my new acquisition ‘Santiago’ a super scarlet. Even something like Penstemon ovatus is looking good with deep red leaves.
Nerines have been good in the greenhouse. I am building up some nice big pots of various sarniensis varieties. Even in late November there are some good flowers open. ‘Audrey Clarke’ is looking especially striking with four good flowering stems in one pot.
The early double primroses ‘Easter Bonnet’, ‘Sunshine Suzie’ and ‘Miel’ are flowering away with gusto adding some real colour to the garden. It was such a pleasure to be weeding the new big primrose beds this year, and work in the sunshine dividing the primrose plants with the burnt sugar scent of the Cercidiphyllum ‘Rotsfuchs’ to tease me. Malcolm Pharoah, the National Collection holder of Astilbe, gave me some lovely astilbes this year and they too have had extremely good autumn foliage colour. He has really opened my eyes to these plants. There is so much more of a range than I had realised. I have planted the charming dwarf astilbe ‘Willie Buchanan’ as something of a ground cover. The ‘Isa Hall’ Malcolm gave me was a delight with delicate gracefully-arching flowers and then stunning red shades to the leaves in the autumn. So now I am branching out and have planted more varieties and am especially looking forward to seeing how some of the very tall ones do.
Astilbe ‘Isa Hall’ autumn foliage
One of the Saxifages in flower
The other delight this year has been the Saxifraga fortunei. they are still flowering away with super mounds of frothy flowers; what a difference they make to shady woodland spots in the autumn. I hope the frosts hold off so their show continues. But what a strange year – the hellebores started flowering in August and most of them have flowers already, and not just the odd flower, they are in full bloom. Violets were in flower in September and the wild primroses in the lawn were making mowing tricky in October. My first snowdrop ‘Faringdon Double’ opened on November 20th. ‘Mrs McNamara’ is set to be the next to flower.
Now I must work fast. The peony beds have been weeded and manure spread but the primroses are waiting for their generous dollops of well-rotted manure. I need to do this before the ground gets too wet to be able to get wheelbarrows around. Then it is the planning for next year. I have many ideas about plants to add to the shrub walk. The shrubs are finding their feet and starting to look good. The Clethra and Styrax are really pleasing. I was very sad in the summer when the Pterostyrax hispida snapped on a day that wasn’t even very windy. It has been tidied back to a good bud and I hope it will overcome this setback. Now with the shrubs establishing well I can spend the winter thinking about plants to tuck in around them.
Trying so hard this year to keep on top of annual weeds in the hope that I can reduce future crops! Maybe it will help, maybe it is wishful thinking. I think that there definitely is a correlation between how much work I have put in and how much more easy it is to do the work now. If I think back ten years when I was starting from scratch with a bare field used to cows, I know I don’t have the energy now to do the work I did then.
Weather this year has been favourable, so I have been able to get on quite well. I am starting to become more ruthless. I should have done this long ago. Fruit trees that haven’t taken properly have gone on the bonfire. I thought I would feel bad but actually I really don’t notice their absence – except to think how much better it looks! Some box that was struggling because of the wet ground has met the same fate, and more will follow. On the box front, Callum, my young neighbour comes to do some work in the garden most weeks. He is very good at trimming things – edges of flower beds, old leaves from phormium plants, that sort of thing. Recently I gave him a box ball to prune. His first effort ever to do this and he took to it like a duck to water. I foresee a future topiarist. Jake Hobson, look to your laurels! Unintentional pun there, sorry!
I am going to give Callum some plants of his own to work on from scratch and see how creative he can be with them. It is certainly interesting to watch Callum at work. Children don’t have the worries we have when we get older – he sets to with gusto. I keep reminding him “think twice, cut once”, but actually he seems to have an instinctive feel for it. One day he will cut off a bit and wish he hadn’t, but so far so good! On the left you can see him next to the finished item on his first effort. Top marks!
Such a beautiful time of year; everything so green with fresh growth and wonderful bird song. Thrushes are nesting in the pleached hornbeam. The first time that happened I was so pleased because I felt that made them official trees, now they nest there every year. It is amazing how fast a garden can get established. The primroses are nearly over now just a few late varieties in flower. This photo is of Primula ‘Tarragem Gilded Garnet’ bred by Dr Margaret Webster. The peonies are starting. Already the tenuifolia have flowered, and ‘Mai Fleuri’ an early flowering hybrid is in flower. Most wonderful of all the unpronounceable and unspellable species peony known to everyone by its nickname “Molly the witch” is in flower. It is such a fabulous pale yellow and looks so fresh. The early foliage of the herbaceous peonies has been wonderful. The emergent growth is often a glowing red or rich purple. Now the bushes have tight buds which I am watching with glee. It seems that most things are at least two weeks early this year, so I am busy planning visits to see other people’s peonies too now.
I an weeding like mad (gardens don’t make themselves!), but there has been very little rain this year so even in my wet garden some areas are starting to be a bit dry. Last autumn I had some metal edges put round some of the flower beds as an experiment. It is really making life easier, so although expensive I shall probably add more when I can afford it!
Spring started early this year with a lot of the double primroses coming into flower as early as February. At the same time the daffodils are took over from the snowdrops; under the pleached hornbeam Narcissus lobularis is thriving. They have been seeding themselves for several years and and really starting to look good. Annoyingly they are doing better on one side of the walk than the other so it is not as balanced as I would like but they are giving the splash of colour that lifts the spirits on gloomy North Cornwall early Spring days. I suspect that old varieties of daffodils will become a new interest for me. Already I seem to be getting quite a few! There are quite a few old varieties of daffodil growing on my hedge (Cornish hedge – a stone backed bank of earth). They seem to all be at least pre-1920 varieties although some I think it will be difficult to identify. Realising that set me off looking at other old varieties. So much fun to be had there I think! Like the primroses, it is lovely to have flowers that add colour to the early Spring.
But to come to the primroses – it is looking like a very good year for them. ’Easter Bonnet’ is always reliably early into flower. It is similar to historic ‘Quakers Bonnet’ but is a very floriferous and long flowering plant that I highly recommend. It is the longest flowering of any variety I grow. Walking round the garden, it is extremely wet but pale pink ‘Sue Jarvis’, lovely white ‘Petticoat’, ‘Sunshine Susie’ have all been in flower since February and other varieties are really getting into their stride. Super ‘Tregor Rose’ a recent Barnhaven double is also looking great. Always early it is a lovely dark red velvet colour with a deckled edge; certainly one of my favourites.
Although it is the double primroses I collect I have quite a few single primroses and this year am pleased at how they have been developing into nice big clumps. They always look better like that. ‘Dark Rosaleen’ is one of Joe Kennedy’s breeding with the lovely dark leaves his plants often have. Such a distinctive and pretty flower.
This winter I have created a new bed near the house with some beautiful hellebores from John Massey’s Ashwood Nursery. Even when the ground is too wet to walk on I can enjoy seeing them. I have been adding some of the new double primrose releases from Barnhaven to the bed and already it is looking very pleasing.
At the end of March the BBC filmed a Plant of the Month feature in my garden on primroses with Carol Klein as the presenter. It was after a week of heavy rain and hail; the ground was so wet. I thought the cameraman was very brave kneeling in the flower beds to get the angles he needed. He could easily have disappeared from view altogether. The feature will go out on the April 7th programme on BBC2.
This has been such a busy year that I have had little time for computers. The weather has been pretty favourable. Last winter was mild, and this has been a fairly dry year for North Cornwall which has meant that quite a lot has been done in the garden. Things are definitely tidier. I have also been greatly assisted by Philip, who has taken on grass cutting for me and proved reliable and diligent. This has meant I had more time for other things. My new primrose bed is proving to be a good position for the double primroses. I have planted those in the red and purple colour spectrums here, and am, now that I have confidence in its suitability, increasing the plantings. I have Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Rotfuchs’ and Hydrangea ‘Merveille Sanguine’ to give height and more interest to the area. Admittedly both are dark foliage but the feeling is coming on nicely.
My shrub walk is also slowly taking shape. I have, of course, given the best positions to the plants so I still need to solve the problem of paths in wet areas! No-one ever believes how wet my ground is until they walk over it!
My new passion for peonies is fast getting out of control. I may have restricted myself to pre-First World war varieties but I already have quite a few of those. Well, close to seventy varieties planted in beds that are meant to be mirror images although the plants may have other ideas. The Lemoine Wittmanniana hybrids from 1907, which are very early flowering have been given their own area in the shrub walk. I am really looking forward to seeing them flower. The lactiflora peonies are rapidly taking over what was originally intended to be veg garden. Much more fun I think!
A very pleasant surprise this Spring when I got plants of Primula ‘Siobhán’ from a keen lady gardener in Ireland. They are slowly bulking up, and currently in flower at the end of November. Such a pleasure to find another variety of double primrose. I am still searching diligently for varieties like ‘Prince Silverwings’ but my hopes have been dashed so many times that I think the chances of finding some of these old varieties are vanishingly slim now. Please prove me wrong!
There are still quite a few of the double primroses in flower – the stalwarts who flower the longest of all are ‘Sunshine Suzie’ and ‘Easter Bonnet’. ‘Belarina Valentine’ is becoming a real favourite too.
The planting of the shrub walk continues – it will take time for the shrubs to grow and mature but the idea starts to take shape. The newest project in the garden is the planting of two beds of peonies. Each bed is about 21 feet by 14 feet. Now this gives quite a lot of space but there are many wonderful peonies to choose from. I visited Margaret Baber’s National Collection in the Forest of Dean to try to help and narrow down my ideas. What a lovely day that was – the photographs I took are just the antidote to a rainy day too! I decided to restrict myself to pre-First World War peonies because even so there was a wide and wonderful range of beautiful flowers to choose from. The best place I could find to buy from is the French peony nursery Rivière. They have been breeding and selling peonies for generations since 1849 in fact. Not only is their range amazing but the customer service is very good. And when I received the plants the quality was astonishingly good. I now look forward to many future seasons of beautiful flowers.
But it has not all been good this year. I have in the garden a summerhouse which is a very prominent feature and visible in all the articles that have been published on the garden in the Western Morning News and Cornwall Life. It came from HSP Garden Buildings in 2010, which is not so long ago. When sitting in it in the Spring I suddenly realised that the wide horizontal glazing bars were concave and when I touched them I realised they had rotted. Although the summerhouse looks lovely it has been nothing but trouble. Firstly almost immediately after it had been put up one of the window panes filled with condensation. A workman was sent to replace it. Within a month of it being replaced the same pane again filled with condensation. I rang to report this and was told “oh! that is not acceptable” and was told that the appropriate person would be in touch. I never heard anymore.
Then I found that the blocks carrying the hooks to secure the doors pull straight off. They were only glued on and had tiny pins to hold them. Certainly not sufficient for purpose. I had to have my carpenter secure the blocks with a proper screw. Next the lock rusted up completely so a key would not go into the keyhole. I had to get the lock replaced. Now the glazing bars are like marshmallow. I contacted the company and was told they would organise for the doors to be replaced and I would hear from them with a date within days – it is now months with no word. So now I have a dilemma. It was obviously a very expensive mistake buying the summerhouse. I could have probably had a new mid-range summerhouse every year for the cost of the HSP one. With the degree of rot in the doors they will not last much longer – so what to do? How long can I keep chasing them?
Time to take stock of a very busy Spring: several articles in magazines and newspapers brought more attention than I expected to my garden. Rather disconcerting as I saw how many weeds there were lurking around. The primroses had a very good season. Top of the list for flowering: Easter Bonnet, Sunshine Suzie, Petticoat, Bon Accord Purple. Belarina Valentine is proving to be a good garden plant. My new shrub walk is slowly taking shape and I am starting to plant primroses out there. Petticoat has been in flower there since January. It faded at the end of April but now in mid-May is back in flower again. I keep being asked which my favourite double is which is an impossible question, probably the one which is in flower at that moment! This pale blue un-named Barnhaven is fast becoming a favourite though. The flowers are small but that adds to the charm, and it certainly doesn’t lack flowers.
I also had the chance to visit Anita Allen’s garden on the edge of Exmoor (opens for the NGS) where a pink double primrose seeds (yes) itself around prolifically. Anita has several National Collections and her garden is well worth a visit. There are several double primroses with this sort of colour. Sue Jervis was supposed to have been found in the wild in Shropshire, and in Ireland there is one with the distinctive leaves of Petticoat which came from Helen Dillon’s garden called Pink Petticoat. That also seems to grow as vigorously as Anita’s plants.
With a hard frost on the ground all day today, there is time to think back over the autumn. It has been a much better year for weather. Two months of drought, July and September, contributed to a warmer drier year that helped a lot of plants to settle down and grow happily. The shrub walk still really only exists in my mind but shrubs that were planted this year have mostly done quite well. Deutzia pulchra at least doubled in size and had flower buds until the frost caught it this last week.
The autumn colours were good this autumn too with various viburnum and hydrangea quercifolia ‘John Wayne’ being the best here. But perhaps the best month was September when the roses flowered and flowered. June rain had tattered the main flowering, but it was more than made up for the September flowering. I did learn a lesson however. I started dividing the primroses too early not expecting the weather to turn so dry. In the end I resorted to putting in an irrigation system in the shade tunnel – irrigation in my garden! But by and large everything was fine, and pulled through.
Now at the end of December I have six or seven varieties of double primrose in flower in the garden. ‘Easter Bonnet’ tends to come into flower in November and then flower through to August. I have no idea why it got the name it did. ‘Sunshine Suzie’ is in flower under the Chaenomeles ‘Scarlet and Gold’ which is trained against a north wall. It has a very Christmassy feel. ‘Fife Yellow’ has been in flower but seems to be taking a pause. Just along from it ‘Kalle-K’ is making the most of an opportunity. Sparrows nest above it and have been shredding its flowers; at the moment they seem to be leaving it alone. ‘Val Horncastle’ and ‘Pridhamsleigh’ are both in flower along the bed where I have planted several varieties of yellow and blue doubles. ‘Delft Blue’ is flowering strongly in the shade tunnel where it seems to be happier than it is in the open garden. Several other of the Belarina range, Cream, Buttermilk and Buttercup are also flowering away. ‘Captain Blood’ my favourite of the dark reds has a lot of flowers, and the other lovely dark red another Belarina ‘Valentine’ also has flowers. ‘Bon Accord Purple’ has been in flower and has buds, and ‘Bon Accord Gem’ and ‘Bon Accord Cerise’ have both just finished flowering. That’s more than I had realised and I am sure there are some I have forgotten. Not a bad way to end the year.
A new shade tunnel was put up in January for the double primroses. Luckily I was able to get one from a nursery that had closed which saved a lot of money. I thought it would be easy to get it planted with the varieties in rows either side of the path. But nothing is ever quite as easy as it seems and when I started digging I found that at one end of the tunnel – the end with the best soil – a previous owner had buried a concrete wall, a cast iron wheel from a chicken coop, the old herd sign and all sorts of other rubbish. There must have been an old pond that the rubbish had been dumped into. The pond had been made with five layers of the heavy duty plastic sheeting used for sillage pits. This all had to be dug out. The concrete wall I had to break up with a sledge hammer before I could get it in pieces I could move. Oh boy! But it is now tidied up and there are something like sixty varieties of double primroses planted in there. Along the front edge of the tunnel I am planting varieties of Nerine bowdenii.
I have an arrangement with the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh that I send them any primroses I have with a Scottish Heritage. This Spring I sent some divisions of Primula ‘Bon Accord Purple’. This picture of the plants in quarantine there was tweeted. I felt it wasn’t very dignified for them to be seen like that! But it is good to ensure that plants go to a reliable back-up grower.
This year has been much better weather-wise. We had a warm winter so a lot of things didn’t ever really stop growing. I cut an enormous amount off my box bushes. But we did have a long dry spell right through July. I think this may be why I am finding that the primroses have got “carroty” very quickly this year. I am ruthlessly dividing and removing carroty roots now.
The big news I suppose though is that in June I was given full National Collection status by Plant Heritage. This feels like the start of something rather than the achievement of a goal. Now I must ensure that the plants are grown well, and propagated so that they are conserved for the future: a big responsibility.
Conditions have been very different to last year. This year there was a late frost that hit some plants, especially hydrangeas that were just starting to show their new leaves. Then we had a long dry period, finishing up with an unusually hot spell. Plants that like moist conditions – which is what the garden normally has – fillipendula rubra, and desfontania spinosa have struggled. Because of the slow start to the year many plants were three weeks to a month late in flowering, and then went over quickly because of the heat. Roses have enjoyed the conditions although their flowers didn’t last long, and Iris ensata that normally do very well were over very quickly. But I have been able to catch up on work that couldn’t be done last year, and make good inroads into the weeds.
Interestingly the hornbeam hedging has coped well with the dry conditions. It is better than beech in the wet, so it was a surprise to find it is also better in the dry. The remaining bits of beech are now going to come out and be replaced with hornbeam.
Last year vegetables did so badly that I was quite put off this year. Even tough things like perpetual spinach and beetroot just didn’t grow, probably because apart from the enormous amounts of rain, light levels were so low. This year it has been lack of rain that has been the problem. The sweet corn is ridiculously short but is starting to form cobs. Peas are coming on well, and broad beans have been good if small. The asparagus seemed to be particularly delicious this year. The Jerusalem artichokes wilted in the heat but soon recovered.