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.
From Ed Ikin, Head Gardener of Nymans in West Sussex
It’s finally here. After several false dawns, we have a proper drought summer, the first since 2006. At times like these, you realise just what a knife edge we garden on.
Give a classical English country garden regular, but not excessive, rainfall and mannered summer sunshine, ideally not exceeding 25oC, and it thrives. Any variation on this - excessive heat, prolonged dryness or heavy storms – and we quickly enter a world of stress and worry, our plants no longer appearing ‘fit’ for the site.
These are stressful times for Nymans too. But not that stressful. Good soil and enlightened management stretching back a century have given us a robust site and doughty plants not prepared to give up after a couple of dry weeks. Our lawns, never watered in living memory are still green not brown, and our roses and herbaceous perennials have yet to ask for water.
The big challenge lies with the Summer Borders. This homage to high horticulture, a densely planted patchwork of 6500 annuals, is the heart of our summer display, deeply ingrained in the affections of tens of thousands of visitors. How do we satisfy them while reconciling our reluctance to water? We push our bedding to the limit whilst maximising the potential within the soil. Organic matter and root enhancing fungi are added and then the game of patience begins. Can we avoid watering today? Can we wait another 24 hours? What are the moisture levels deep in the soil where the roots are? We know that annual bedding is robust: Dr Tijana Blanusa’s ongoing work at Reading University shows that when annual are given minimal water, they don’t die, they grow differently. Leaner, wirier, tougher, more resilient and yet still willing to flower. Right now, our watering intervals are 10 days apart.
The summer may challenge us further, but Nymans’ fundamental characteristics – a well-chosen site, full of well-chosen plants, will see us through.
Thoughtful Gardening by Ed Ikin (National Trust Books £14.99) is a user friendly, clearly written guide to ‘green’ gardening. Novice gardeners will learn all the essentials from this but there are lots of nuggets for the more experienced gardener too. AG
From Fenja Gunn, artist & plantswoman
Recently I was asked if, as an artist, I ever painted imagined plant combinations and then translated these into actual schemes for my garden. Why did I feel guilty when I replied that I rarely did this? I only had to remember and quote from a brilliant talk on colour in the garden by Timothy Walker, the Director of the Oxford Botanical Gardens. He showed our local gardening club slides of the same group of plants photographed at different times of the day. At each stage the colours of the plants changed dramatically as the light and direction of the sun altered throughout the day. There is no way one could capture this accurately on paper in a one-off painting of an imagined group of plants. It would require a whole series of paintings and this would drag you away from the pleasure of actually getting your hands into the soil and working with real material. I prefer to visit gardens and nurseries, look at plants and then imagine them in my garden. If you put a plant in the wrong place – I frequently have – it can always be moved together with several watering cans’ worth of water.
The one part of the garden which I planned meticulously on paper was my rose garden. But this was a diagrammatic planting plan in pencil: the colour scheme of the roses I planned from seeing actual plants, using books and the expertise of Peter Beales rose nurseries. I wonder if every garden lost its share of plants this winter? We certainly did. But the roses have emerged triumphantly: more beautiful, healthier (I hope a gremlin is not reading this over my shoulder) and first covered in buds and, now, a mass of blooms. My colour scheme is of cream and pinks from the delicious soft pink of ‘Felicia’ to the wicked deep purple of ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’. It always annoys me that even the most well-seasoned gardening journalist insists that all old roses only flower once. This is total rubbish. My rose garden is made up of old shrub roses and many of them continue to flower throughout the season; ‘Rose de Rescht’, ‘Comte de Chambord’, the hybrid musks ‘Prosperity’ and ‘Felicia’, pretty little ‘Mousseline’ and that favourite of Gertrude Jekyll’s, ‘Old Blush’ – a China rose that begins so early and finishes so late in the season.
Although I love roses and they appear everywhere in my garden and not just in their designated area, it’s the interplay of a wide variety of plants that gives me pleasure. I think in terms of drawing rather than painting – by this I mean the outlines of different plant shapes, the structure of foliage. We have a garden of flowing borders that slope upwards from our house. It is essential – or seems to me to be so – to punctuate the borders with architectural plants to contrast with my scheme of exuberant and naturalistic planting. Colour of course is the magical element in any garden. At Mariners, I think of the place and its plants as a painting, but not one which could be interpreted on paper or canvas. It exists in three dimensions in the open air, with shade, light and the movement of air and wind constantly mutating the picture.
From Robert Jamieson, Head Gardener
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been getting to grips with the casualties of the long, hard and still persistent winter. In Northumberland we’ve seen the most snow for years and a low of -12°C. We’ve been lucky in that none of the special trees or shrubs have suffered too much – the main problem was weight of snow, so we continually went around clearing snow from the branches to stop them from splitting. A couple of rhododendrons tipped over but these have now been put back up and should recover well, as will most of the trees and shrubs. We do appear to have lost most of the osteospermums and diascias, but we always take cuttings of these so have plenty of replacements in the nursery.
A ray of hope of better things to come are the snowdrops bravely awaiting the melting of the snow in order to give a good show during the rest of February. As they finish flowering at the beginning of March we’ll start to move lots more from the woods down into the main garden – a fiddly job that will keep our four gardeners and sixteen garden volunteers busy for most of the month. We’re closed for the hardest winter months – from the middle of November to the beginning of February – and the break, when we concentrate on planting and tidying, seems to get shorter every year. But by now hardy visitors have returned to meander through the drifts of snowdrops – perhaps it’s the thought of a cup of steaming Earl Grey tea and a piece of home-made cake that encourages them to wrap up and venture out (the gardens, arboretum and tea room are open for the snowdrop walk Wednesday to Sunday, 10.30am to 4pm).
The garden continues to evolve slowly and peacefully, though as the spring approaches we sometimes find ourselves acting just like swans on a pond – appearing serene and graceful while working frantically behind the scenes to get everything ready on time. Last year we were named 2009 Garden of the Year by BBC Gardens Illustrated and the Garden Museum. It is great to get recognition for the hard work we have put in over the last 26 years to create something that rather than being a quick fix is something that will continue to evolve and develop over many years to come and hopefully will continue to give pleasure to visitors long after we have gone. It has involved us in even more work, however, for one of the reasons for the award was that Howick is ‘a gene bank of material from all over the world… meticulously documented’. So we’ve spent a lot of time in the arboretum this year trying to keep on top of our meticulous documentation – mapping and labelling as well as pruning and tidying ties and guards etc. Even though it has been slow to establish, the arboretum is thriving and we’re often surprised by just how quickly the trees are now growing, especially the Abies densa, which put on about 1m growth each year and produce large purple cones on relatively young trees, and the Chinese pterocaryas, which put on similar amounts of growth and really enjoy the conditions here. And at long last our visitors can now take a pleasant and rewarding one-and-a-half-mile walk all the way down to the sea.