December 11, 2018

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 4 March 2017: Grand Designs

Another bonus of being in Sydney in late summer is that Magnolia grandiflora are just coming into flower and I get to walk past them every day. They’re beautiful, but they’re also giving me a lesson in botany. I’ve been able to see what goes on within the flowers because the trees down our street are only adolescent, sexually mature but not so tall that I can’t see the flowers. Feels a bit rude really, but my attention was drawn to them by seeing a wasp (bee? I don’t know Aussie insects) fumbling around in a pile of stamens, while in another flower, a similar bee/wasp was undressing the female part of the flower by tearing off the stamens (well, flowers are about sex).

“Grandiflora”, yes, but we can’t really call them “grand design”; they’re the product of the marvellous Darwinian process of natural selection. Magnolias are particularly interesting in evolution because they are one of the first plants to develop flowers as a way to persuade beetles to visit (bees came on the scene later) and help them with the difficult business of getting pollen to the female parts, and thus to accomplish fertilization. This enormous scented flower signalled to the beetle that here was pollen to eat (no nectar yet, other flowers worked that one out); the beetle who was itself evolving and needing a way to make a living, came, scrabbled around in the stamens, and bumped into the female structures – and the rest is history.

A brilliant consequence of evolving flowers to please insects is that we humans are seduced too; to quote from a book I’ve just bought “those who are forming gardens should always give magnolias their first consideration when planting”. What a grand design on the part of magnolias, to plan for 90 million years ahead! Take that, Kevin.

Caroline’s Garden Diaries: 1 February 2017: Handkerchiefs waving

I was showing a visitor round Ray Wood the other day, to see the beautiful witchhazels in flower. A lovely experience; they’re so tall, you can walk under them, and you’re surrounded by their flowering branches, and their exquisite smell. But round the corner and up the hill, there was an even more exciting thing – Davidia, the handkerchief tree, was laden with fruit. I had noticed last summer that it had been covered with flowery handkerchiefs, and now here was the outcome – they’d waved goodbye and turned into plums.

Strangely, I now have three Davidia fruits sitting by the sink – dull brown lumps, but they say so much. I’ve already told you about the plant-hunter, Ernest Wilson (“Chinese Wilson”) and how he brought back seeds of Davidia; he had a truly dreadful trip to find this tree he’d been instructed to visit but when he got there, it had been cut down a few days earlier. Later he found some more, and all was well; indeed, several thousand Davidia seedlings were produced by the nursery that sent him.

I often try to imagine what it might have been like to be Wilson finding the tree that became his favourite (mine too) and it makes the fruit sitting on my sink so special. They’re here because of him, and so they carry in them such a story (not only the grim details of finding more trees, but then waiting out there for them to produce fruit, climbing to collect them etc etc). Not only that, these fruits on my sink carry another challenge for me – how do I get the seeds to germinate?
And of course, they carry the potential to be trees, 50 foot high or more. If I succeed, they’ll be covered in pocket-handkerchiefs waving hello.

Garden diaries

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 7 February 2017: Summer in the city

It’s disorienting, literally, to go from one season to another in just a day (a very long day spent sitting in a large metal box in the sky). This time, I’ve gone from frosty winter in Sand Hutton, with snowdrops just getting going and one crocus in bud, to boiling hot summer in Sydney with deafening sound of cicadas but pretty frangipani in flower on every street corner.

When we started these regular visits to Australia in 2006, I was quite homesick; we’d left the English countryside in full summer when swallows were cruising the fields of waving barley, to swap it for winter, with dark evenings, and hideous bird squawks (couldn’t call it song). Thinking about the experience some ten years on, I realize that for me, familiarity with native flora is an important part of feeling at home. The very first time I was here, in 1991, driving away from the airport, I did not recognize a single flower, apart from ones we grow in England as tender house-plants but here in Oz grow as trees.

One plant I’ve got to know and love is Lagerstroemia indica, and it’s the seasonal change that led me to it. We were here last July, winter in the city, when during my daily walk up to the shops, I began to notice how beautiful were the bare trunks of a small tree growing as a street tree. I’d also noticed that there was a keen gardener living next to it, so I asked him its name. Nice man, who said in Aussie accent that it was “crap myrtle”; I found it on Google as “crepe myrtle”, said to be very popular for marvellous summer-flowering. Now here in February, I can see why.


Caroline’s Garden Diaries 21.11.2016: All the Leaves are Brown ….

And yellow, orange, red, lime, purple, golden, rusty, fiery –making a gorgeous picture, so, no, I’m not dreamin’ of California. I want to be here, in England in November – it’s so beautiful and has been for weeks! Best autumn ever, I think. It’s true, Mamas and Papas, the sky is grey at this very moment and it’s raining, (which is why I’m at my desk) but even in the rain, the leaves are glowing. And there have been amazing effects with black skies for the trees to display against in their glory.

One reason we don’t have to dream of being in America to see autumn colours is that some of our most brightest trees were brought here from America by English landowners rich enough to have their dreams fulfilled. Red oak, red maple, tulip tree, tupelo, liquidambar are all introductions with the most fabulous reds and buttery leaves. And when you see the red maple called “October Glory” at the Yorkshire Arboretum, you can really understand about “painting the landscape” that the posh estates were doing.

America gave us the colours but we gave them the word. “Fall” would have been used by the Pilgrim Fathers when they sailed across the ocean, and it was only later the English converted to the French word “automne” for the fall of the year. Maybe with Brexit and Trump, we go back to Fall…….it is a useful word, a reminder of the downside to all the glory, that leaves are busy changing colour so they can fall down, leave their parents in peace and turn into a sludgy mess.

But it’s OK; when all the leaves are down, the English countryside will look beautiful in another way – bare trees on a frosty winter’s morning.

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 16.6.16: Chinese Wilson

Discovered an amazing thing last week; my recently acquired Magnolia wilsonii developed a weird looking lump on one of its twigs, a greeny-coloured sac, looking like a butterbean or an insect’s chrysalis. On closer inspection I wondered – could it actually be a flower bud? Great excitement if so – I bought this magnolia because I fell in love with it and its cousin M. sinensis on seeing them in Ray Wood, but had planted it in traditional spirit of a legacy for the future.

And then, three days ago, the weird growth opened into a flower – what a thrilling moment! M. wilsonii has the most beautiful flowers in the world, and here is one on a small plant in my garden.

What makes the flower so special, at least in my eyes, is the pure waxy white of its petals, contrasted with the deep crimson of its stamens gathered round a central milky-green receptacle, all arranged most elegantly to hang down rather than sitting on the branch as do the magnolias we normally grow. So when you walk under 30- or 40-year old trees, you look up and there’s heaven looking down.

Part of the thrill comes from the knowledge that this magnolia is one of Ernest Wilson’s introductions from his plant-hunting trips to China in the early 1900s. Reading about his incredible undertakings to find another magic tree, Davidia involucrata, involving a journey of thousands of miles, surviving horrendous dangers (imprisoned as a spy; punted by natives high on opium; chased by terrorist fighters), you feel so privileged to see his trees in this country.

Coming down to earth, literally, I’ve had to lie on wet grass to look up into my Chinese Wilson – and then I see that a slug has been there first; oh well, that’s life.


Caroline’s Garden Diaries 27.4.16: The Art of Gardening

Last month, I went to the exhibition “Painting the Modern Garden” at the Royal Academy in London. It’s had rave reviews, with good reason, and it was a marvellous opportunity to see Monet’s triptych of water lilies displayed as such when normally the three pieces are on their own in separate galleries. And of course, great to see so many beautiful paintings of things I love the best, flowers and plants in gardens. What could be better?

Well, after looking at a few paintings, I began to want to be in a real garden, in the open air, with sweet smells, birdsong, looking at real plants, not in a stuffy room, heaving with people listening to their audio guides. I found myself returning to look at one of Monet’s paintings of a woman in a sunlit garden because it had exactly the right feel, and then I saw the famous painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots. Aha! Now, there’s someone who was both an artist and a gardener, just like Monet, but for her, art lay in making her garden – painting was gardening. As she says in her book “Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden”, plants are “paints set out upon a palette”, and in gardening, we “use the plants to make beautiful pictures”.

But now I’m back home in the garden with my camera (for the Photography Competition), I’m on Monet’s side again. At the exhibition, seeing painting after painting of water-lilies, I did rather wonder what he was trying to do and why was he so obsessed, but now I understand. Flowers led Monet to painting; they’ve led me to photography – the more I focus on a flower, the more I’m entranced and the more I keep trying to capture its beauty perfectly.


Caroline’s Garden Diaries 6.3.2016: Sowing the seeds

I’ve been having a lot of fun choosing seeds of several sorts of so-called “interesting perennials”. Just as I’ve been experimenting with growing my fairy primroses under different conditions, now I want to experiment with different plants to find other ones that are sellable (it’s that Plant Fair again).

I’ve already learnt to resist temptation to buy everything from a seed catalogue (although the promise of the Plant Fair actually has opened the door again) so the first step was to develop some criteria for choosing a few that people might want to buy (and I want to play with).

An early finding from the experiment is that if you want to grow lots of seeds, your house will be taken over by seed-trays on south-facing window-sills already occupied by fairy primroses, and you’ll be putting pots in the airing cupboard and shoving out the sheets and duvets. Another finding emerging along with the seedlings is that while it’s easy to sow seeds, it’s going to be hard work to make decent plants of them. All those babies will need pricking out, potting on, watering, and then, where are all the pots going to go until it’s warm enough for them to go into the greenhouse (which is already full of cuttings)? Maybe I’m making a case for buying a larger, better equipped greenhouse……..

More lessons here from sowing seeds: if ideas are like seeds, and the project of the Plant Fair is about growing an idea, to be a success it’s going to need a lot of care and effort. But it’ll be worth it: when you’ve sown seeds, you check every day to see if anything’s happened, and then one day, yes! A tiny stem pushing up through the compost, the magic of life.

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 10.2.2016: I believe in fairies

Fairy primroses, anyway (sorry Tinkerbell); they’re lovely, and I clap my hands whenever I see them. I’ve grown them for several years, selling them at Saturday Socials, although the poor fairies didn’t actually get much clapping at the last Saturday Social in December. Maybe people were distracted by having our MP there or it may simply be that last year, once germinated, the seedlings grew very slowly and weren’t really big enough for people to believe in them. So I took them home again.

Being away with the fairies has turned out to be a great way to learn things. I had about 30 plants and they were just beginning to come into bud, so I decided I could look after them better and try again at our next sale in April. And without intending to run an experiment on factors influencing growth, I’ve actually given the baby fairies quite a variety of experiences – and the outcome has been a marvellous lesson on plant development. Thus, some were immediately potted up in much larger pots, either individually or in groups, some planted out in the garden, some plonked in the unheated greenhouse, some kept in north-facing windows some kept warm and comfortable on a south-facing window-sill, and some have been fed – something I often don’t bother with. The difference in fairy growth across these different conditions is quite dramatic.

What I’ve learned is that, of course, plants grow better under certain conditions – but seeing the evidence really brings it home that to grow decent plants you need to give them a lot of care (lesson for the Plant Fair in 2017!). But don’t despise chance; the best Fairy of all was grown at Vicarage Farm where it happened to get chucked into a bucket.

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 7.1.2016: The Year Turns

There’s been much talk about the bewildering weather and the strange things happening in the garden (if it’s not under water) – not only early primroses and daffodils, but also flowers that seem to have forgotten it’s winter. Farmers should be thinking about growing rice as our staple food rather than potatoes.

I used to keep a list of everything in flower on the first day of each month but like many things I start, I haven’t kept it up, so I can’t really give personal evidence for climate change. But looking back through the garden diaries that I’ve been writing these last three years, what comes across is that I notice the same things every year, and that although there have been variations in flowering time, it is the cycle of the seasons – the changes in the garden as the earth turns – that is much more significant. Yes, it’s has been quite warm and herb robert is still in flower, but it is winter and so the trees are bare and the days are short, and I’m wanting to write again about winter-flowering iris, fairy primrose, witch hazel etc etc.

So, what’s new to write about? Oh yes, the effect of time itself and how the garden has aged (a thought prompted by a large round-numbered birthday round the corner for the gardener who’s more wrinkled, forgetful, weaker……). Flower-beds look a bit weary and past their best; annuals have had their day, while perennials are lying low in a mess of last year’s growth, and even for the trees, important precisely because they live so long, ageing is starting to be a problem; one lovely oak is now casting too much shade and his time might be up – hope that’s not true for the gardener.

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 17.12.2015: Let’s Propagate!

Not a chat-up line; it’s the title of a book I’ve been reading with time on my hands in Sydney. I also visited the nursery of friend Anne in the Blue Mountains (mentioned in earlier diary) to see how things are propagated there. And golly, there’s a lot to learn. Quite a step, having for more than 60 years been growing things from seed, and for 40 years from cuttings, to find I need to branch out (ho ho).

The reason for this sudden interest is the Blooming Villages project that’s just getting going in our blooming villages. (Haven’t heard about it yet? Well, you should have been to the Saturday Social last week!) The Village Hall needs funds to keep going, and one plan is to have a plant fair where we can sell plants and also have a merry time with related events, and as a result, earn lots of money. The plants will be grown by anyone in Claxton and Sand Hutton who would like to help, and already about 15 have volunteered, offering all sorts of different possibilities they’d like to grow – climbers, shrubs, lettuce, exotic indoor plants.

On a trip that I described recently, round two botanic gardens, we were lucky enough to be shown their propagating units; the new one at RBG Edinburgh was enormous and full of the latest technology – wonderful devices for misting, temperature control, encouraging good root growth etc etc, way out of the village league. But a smaller one, at lovely Howick Hall, showed me some new techniques that I thought I’d try. Unfortunately, my attempts to use bottom heat (no, not that) with cuttings have resulted in several fried twigs; it seems that the project is not only about growing new plants but also new skills.