From Dr Christine Facer Hoffman of Througham Court in Gloucestershire
We’re currently half way through the 2010/2011 winter yet have already experienced the coldest season on record. How has this affected our garden plants and trees and influenced how we design in the future?
I’ve lived at Througham Court, situated in a remote and beautiful part of the Cotswold Hills, since 1995. In 2000 I began designing new contemporary areas (or fragments as I prefer to call them) craftily shoehorned into an existing Arts & Crafts garden designed by the Cotswolds architect Norman Jewson in 1930. Five years later we noticed that new and unusual weather patterns had begun to affect some of the planting design.
To begin with, along came the dreaded box blight. We had opened to the public for the first time that year as the garden had sufficiently matured to be respectable, and our trademark 1930s’ box and yew topiary were one of the attractions. Come September, when there was fairly heavy rainfall but warm days, we noticed browning on the leaves of the Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ hedges and topiary. This appeared overnight and rampaged through the box plants and their neighbours at great speed. Samples sent to RHS Wisley and box specialists confirmed Cylindrocladium. How we acquired it is anyone’s guess, but we lived with it for a few years until it gradually worsened and looked positively unsightly. The universal solution was to remove all the box edging plants and the affected topiary specimens (retaining a few irreplaceable ones) and burn the lot, leaving the flowerbed edges bare. In their place, and after considering other species suitable for edging, we either planted yew (which grows very well in our limey soil) or replaced the box with new buxus plants. These I know are likely to become infected with residual fungal spores, so we have developed a regimen of spraying with fungicides, which should keep the blight under control. We enlisted the help of Karel Goosens, a Belgian specialist with years of experience in this field.
Our procedure for those who might be in a similar situation is as follows. Every year, starting as soon as the temperature rises above 20oC and finishing at the end of September, we spray the plants fortnightly with Octave, Bavistin and Bravo, alternating their use so as to avoid resistance. We combine this with a regimen of cleaning up, disinfecting tools and burning any debris. We have been following this procedure for the past two years and it appears to have worked.
With us, that damp and warm autumn moved on to wet and mild winters for a couple of years – not good for all those ‘Mediterranean’ plants in the garden. Our beautifully scented double borders of Lavandula angustifolia were unhappy and rotted despite being planted in sandy loam, and so we replanted with Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, which gives a beautiful and long-lasting, colourful display. Interestingly, our ‘Hidcote’ lavender survived these conditions in other parts of the garden.
The winter of 2009/2010 was unexpectedly cold with sub-zero temperatures that really sorted out the ‘hardy’ stalwarts. We were told that La Nina was the cause – cold ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific resulting in severe winters in the northern hemisphere and huge upheaval in global weather patterns. Thick snow hung about, froze on the branches of large-leaved evergreen trees such as the Magnolia grandiflora, and resulted in broken branches. Some herbaceous perennials suffered too, such as Gaura lindheimeri, Santolina chamaecyparissus, phormiums, that wonderful feathery grass from Mexico Jarava ichu, and dahlia tubers (never lifted, just heavily mulched, with the exception of the delicate-flowered D. ‘Ragged Robin’).
One of my favourite trees is the Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens, which we topiarise into towering sculptural spires reaching for the sky. In addition to newly planted specimens we have 35-year-old trees, magnificent specimens that look out majestically over the landscape. Throughout the spring of 2010 we noticed a gradual browning of the foliage on one of them. By May that year this had covered three quarters of the tree and was definitely on the way out. Througham is 900 feet above sea level, and although the tree was mature, it couldn’t take the bitterly cold east winds. I have a great fondness for trees, so it was with much sadness that it had to go. We are now carefully watching the remaining cypresses should they suffer a similar fate this year.
We thought last winter cold enough. Roll on December 2010 – the year Britain froze without thaw in the south for some two to three weeks. Waking on December 6th the Cotswold countryside looked magical, with everything dressed up in a sparkling white coat of hoar frost (an air frost) due to a record Gloucestershire night-time temperature of –12oC. Perfect for photography, not so good for plants and a real killer for some. One of my favourite features at Througham is the bamboo maze, concentric circles of crown-lifted and impressively high (a good 5 to 6 metres tall) culms of Phyllostachys nigra surrounded by a hedge of P.aurea and P. aureosulcata spectabilis. These were completely frosted, frosted as I have never seen them before. A few weeks ago I noticed a significant leaf fall, and, on closer examination, many of the tallest culms of P.nigra have dead shrivelled leaves although the other species appear relatively unaffected. I picked up the telephone to several specialist bamboo nurseries, some of who have experienced a similar problem for the first time this year. The good news is that these affected culms should re-leaf in the axils and certainly new culms will grow. Most bamboo species are hardy down to –20oC (roots to –30oC) although some websites suggest that P.nigra is more cold-sensitive.
With the last five years’ experience of adverse weather and how it affects certain plants behind me, would I work differently in the future? I will certainly be looking at the hardiness of plants very carefully before I recommend them to clients, in particular hardiness below –5oC. Recommending lifting and storing of plants or wrapping in fleece for winter are options but they are time consuming and labour-intensive. Our weather system is chaotic – that is predictable but undeterministic – so who knows what’s in store for the remainder of 2011? We’re overdue for a drought in the south-west and then, I guess, we’ll be back to a Mediterranean style of planting again! However, not all is doom and gloom. The last few years of extreme weather has hopefully taught us about flexibility and thinking about planting plans more creatively: to work with the weather rather than against it.
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