April 2012 Newsletter

From the Chairman, John Hudson
Our Celebrity Lecture, by Bob Brown, was held on the coldest night of the year. It was a great success, but not without its anxieties. Two days previously we had the second considerable snowfall of the winter, and we wondered if people would be able to reach Uppingham, or would be put off by the cold. A few may have been, but we did have visitors from distant parts including our national Chairman, Vivienne McGhee, from Worcestershire. There was a late hitch on the day, that most were probably unaware of. Jo Porter had brought flowering Forsythia and other shrub branches, as well as tulips, to construct her famous stage set, Ken Barber arrived with Val's delicious refreshments, Judy Templar had brought hellebores for the entry desk and the tables. Janet Rowe, John Dyson and Nigel Day were on hand as always; but when your chairman turned up, disgracefully later than the other helpers, he found them shivering outside the theatre. There had been a misunderstanding regarding our admission time. Eventually we were admitted and apologies delivered. Bob Brown arrived in good time and the evening proceeded on schedule. All those named above, as well as our other helpers, deserve our heartfelt thanks.

The main talk, on changing tastes in gardening since the 1950s, was entertaining and informative. It brought back many memories to those of us old enough to remember the times before the near-universal use of plastic pots or the rise of garden centres selling mass-propagated bedding plants from Holland. Even garden perennials, previously bought bare-root by mail order, now had to conform to new exigencies of size and ease of handling. So some changes were driven by technology and economics; others perhaps as much by fickle fashion. Dahlias, for instance, were a mainstay of late summer display, but fell out of favour until a recent revival. After the refreshment break, Bob gave a talk, Plants Grow in Dirt, without slides or notes, in which he challenged us to reconsider some long-held beliefs: is it really a good idea to fill your bean trench with manure? (no, it rots anaerobically and harms the seedlings); should you put crocks in your pots and prop them up on pot-feet to help drainage? (no again), and so on. We were enlightened, and shaken out of our complacency.
The rest of the winter programme was very successful too. Ursula Buchan attracted a bigger than usual audience as was perhaps to be expected of a well-known garden writer. Julian Sutton spoke on the Tuesday following the celebrity lecture and we worried that lecture-fatigue might have set in; but not so, another good crowd and an excellent talk. Then Donald Everitt spoke. He was prevented by illness from coming last year and we were delighted he made it this time. He is a real gardener of the old school. Another above average audience. At each of these talks we had new visitors, a most welcome development. We must be doing something right: Mark Bird's programme, Pat Woolston's efforts as publicity officer, and John Dyson's excellent web site must each take credit.
We urge all members to support the Plant Fair on 27 May and to bring their friends. We have some new nurseries attending this year as well as old friends. We all need the inspiration to be derived from great gardens: what better way to achieve this than by joining our friendly coach trips? 

An innovation this year is an invitation to visit the gardens of Oundle School on 7 July. Mark Bird, our programme secretary, is Head Gardener there. An opportunity not to be missed.

Last year we had an early cold winter and a mild new year; this winter was the other way about, with early February by far the coldest time. It is too early to assess the final consequences. My Sophora looks dead again, and so do my three old Ceanothus, originally wall shrubs but now small trees. Maybe some planting opportunities. March was unusually warm and sunny, so hellebores, after a slow start, have flourished. Snowdrops and crocuses came and went rather quickly with me, but Chionodoxas and daffodils have done well and several tulips have flowered in March. As I write  on the fourth of April, it is raining and a cold northeasterly is blowing. Heigh-ho.

A Christmas Day Posy, Jane Skipp
Every Christmas day when the lunch is safely in the oven and can be left for a while, I treat myself, weather permitting, to a wander round the garden to see what is still flowering. Last Christmas, the weather being on the clement side, I ventured forth to see what I could gather for a table decoration and was amazed at the variety of plants still "doing their thing", albeit on a modest scale.
Among the treasures I gathered were a couple of Catanache azura flowers, some pelargonium blooms, one red one white, three gaillardia (from two plants bought from a school summer fete for 10p each three years ago, all previous efforts with this plant having failed spectacularly!) a gentle geranium renardii and a few maroony-red antirrhinum, a plant which self seeded outside the patio doors several years ago and which I have never had the heart to remove at the end of the summer.

The stars of the show, however, were two primulas, one deep red and the other creamy white. There were several blooms on each plant, but I picked only one of each, as I'm really a believer of garden plants belonging in the garden, and I knew they would offer colour all through the winter for us to enjoy. Both flower stems (both of which were generously multi-headed) were still flowering on the kitchen window sill well into the middle of January, a happy reminder of a mild Christmas day.

I was so pleased to have some flowers from the garden indoors on Christmas day. Although I usually find a few herbs and evergreens to go on the table, I can't remember a year where there has been such a variety of "real flowers" to enjoy

Compost Bins: home Made from Gravel Boards, Charles Lawrence
Several summers back Heather and Brian Cromie kindly opened their Kings Cliffe garden to the society. I was fascinated the see their row of compost bins, for me always one of the most important parts of a garden. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I was soon down to the local builders' merchants for tannelised gravel boards, 4.8 m. x 15cm. x 2.5 cm. Each board gave me four 1.2 m. length 'planks', the basis of my metre square compost bins in the photographs. A typical 1m. x 1m. bin, 1.2m. high needs seven sets of four sawn planks, a total of seven 4.8 m. gravel boards. Each board currently costs around £5.50, including VAT.
The time-consuming part is taking out the square notches to make the finished metre plank. I found it quickest to clamp four or more planks in a Workmate; carefully scribe lines across the edges just 7.5 cm and 10.2 cm from each end, giving a notch width of 27 mm, and sawing carefully just 3 cm deep. Then with a good chisel it's quite easy to remove the small 2.5 cm. wide x 3 cm. deep blocks to give the required notches, four to each metre plank. I then put two nails in the 7.5 cm. run between each notch and the plank end, to reinforce this possible weakness.
Then it's simply a matter of assembling all the notched planks: I build the base off bricks to avoid damp. Finally I cut two top rails from tannelised 5cm. x 2.5 cm. planks for each bin, with 2.5 cm. deep notches, so providing a flat upper surface for the whole bin. The finished bins provide adequate ventilation through the 3-4 cm. gaps between planks. The bins look presentable, improving over the years with weathering.

Our garden, about one third of an acre, is in fact non-square, and I made two of the five bins trapezoidal. This simply means cutting the notches at the required angle, and having some planks shorter than the standard one metre. Of our five bins, two are used for compost, this year's and last year's after turning, Two other bins are for leaf mould, again for two successive years. The fifth holds all our spare loam, with used grobags on top. The whole compost area is some 3.3 m. x 2.3 m, including a green plastic Council bin.
Happily, unused boards can be stored vertically between adjacent bins. As the compost heap grows through the season we simply build up successive layers of sawn planks. We find the highest heap of fresh compost is some 1.5 m. high, provided we periodically tread down the compost. I only use compost-maker (Wilkinson's version of Garotta works well) when I turn the compost heap in October, after I have spread the previous year's compost. For leaf mould we have found that interspersed lawn mowings, together with occasional watering, help the leaf breakdown, though our chestnut leaves need at least two years.

A really useful plant John Hudson
I was rude about the term "a useful plant" in an article I wrote recently, but some plants really are useful, as well as beautiful. One of the best in my garden is the spurge Euphorbia characias. It has two sub-species, wulfenii from the eastern Mediterranean with clear yellow centres to the 'flowers', and characias from the western Mediterranean with a dark eye. There are numerous named garden forms. Many years ago I bought a plant of wulfenii 'Lambrook Gold', named after Margery Fish's famous garden. It lived for at least twenty years in the corner of a bed adjacent to the patio, providing a foil to a clump of 'February Gold' daffodils and a background to a pair of bronze geese. It also produced seedlings, which were spread around the garden. Some time later I imported a cutting of a black-eyed plant growing as a roadside weed in Majorca. It didn't do very well, making a small and floppy plant, but its genes must have mixed with those of my original race, because I now find seedlings with both characteristics.
It is the seedlings that prompted this article. Not many plants that have structural value in our gardens also self-seed. E. characias, especially the wulfenii forms that are generally the larger, forms clumps of arching evergreen (bluish green) leafy stems that have character throughout the year. In early spring it produces terminal clusters of typical spurge greeny-yellow flowers that in the best forms elongate into great columnar heads that last until mid summer. It brings strength to what might otherwise be a formless assemblage of plants. Last year I placed three of them for just this purpose in a replanted border, But you might not have thought that you needed a spurge under a pine tree (front cover), or leaning against the greenhouse, until one popped up there. It is surprising how often self-sown plants put themselves where they look right. Unlike some self-sowers, this spurge does not become a nuisance. Small seedlings are obvious, and easy to move, pot-on as gifts, or discard. It is worth observing them though, because they do vary, and selecting the best for use in prominent places. I now have at least 20 in various parts of the garden. This obliging plant is unfussy about soil or aspect. A friend in north Lincolnshire lost his in the 2010-11 winter, but mine have survived the recent hard winters unscathed. Eventually the centre of the clump becomes crowded with old woody stems, and you need to start again; not hard to do.

Gansu Mudan, John Hudson
These must be about the most glamorous plants one can grow in an average garden. Unlike camellias or rhododendrons, they do not need acid soil, nor do they grow excessively large. They are peonies from Gansu district in China, generally known as tree peonies but really shrubs. The most famous example, white with big purple blotches, is variously known as Paeonia rockii, Rock's variety, or Joseph Rock, but there is endless controversy about these names. Will McLewin, the chief authority in this country, refers to them all, white or coloured, as Gansu Mudan, honouring their home territory. I have three of flowering size in my garden, one in the open, the others under a west wall, which they seem to prefer. I have just planted a fourth. I maintain that the photographs ought to convince any doubters.