Thursday, 27 September 2012

Higher and higher

Weather: It was very wet and overcast to begin with. Rain broke out a few times then like a breath of fresh air the sun broke through and it became a very beautiful day with that long sort of light that bathes everything in gold late in the afternoon.

We finished off the cleaning & sorting of bulbs and carefully put them on shelves in the nursery. I witnessed the smallest tulip bulbs I have ever seen - they were pink and were like tic tacs. Then we carried on with some meadow work. The cut grass was heavy from having been out in the rain. We then strewed more rich cuttings down at The Farm area where we are trying to cultivate more meadowland.

(View from the tractor - James & Liz on top of the compost mound)

In order to be able to keep building the mound higher and higher, not only do we need to build the corners up well, keeping the sides as a straight as possible is important.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Cleaning bulbs

The last two days the weather has been practically the same, very changeable, stormy, windy, wet & rainy. In the Exotic Garden I can easily pretend that it is a tropical storm and carry on denying the coming of autumn & winter. Holding on to the illusion of warmth and summer for as long as possible. Even the birds around me seem to chirp loudly in defiance.

My work has mainly been a matter of seeing what wreckage has been done and to go round fixing and staking everything as much as possible.

A job that has brought us some relief from the rain has been the cleaning and sorting of bulbs in the Great Barn - tulips, narcissi, crocuses, muscari & hyacinths.

We count the flowering bulbs (ones that are big enough for flowering) and then put the rest in a paper bag bag as extras.

A sumptuous feast of plants

A special feature on plants from the Exotic Garden:

Cyperus papyrus
Ricinus communis 'Zanzibariensis' (poisonous castor oil plant)

Colocasia esculenta

Begonia luxurians

Impatiens bicaudata

Eucalyptus gunnii

Schizostylis coccinea

Trachycarpus fortunei

Amicia zygomeris

Mina lobata (aka Spanish Flag)

Contrasts & textures

(The Exotic Garden framed by the cow shed)

A brief summary from Fergus study day on creating a tropical garden

In the early days of Dixters Exotic Garden Fergus & Christopher Lloyd started & sampled with just a small selection of plants. A lot of them were raised by themselves from seeds or cuttings. As the garden progressed they would try more plants & different ways of planting, even now the bedding are experimented with every year. This year it has become a taller & shadier lush jungle.

The banana trees - Musa basjoo & Musa ensete are the focal point of the planting, one bed is worked on at a time and then the next one would correspond with that. There are a small handful of permanent plants. As they get bigger the planting morphs with them too.

The hot & humid microclimate in this area created by the surrounding yew hedges & york stone paths allow for more tender plants to grow more successfully. It is also a frost trap, so as the threat of frost become more imminent we will at the ready for the mass exodus of lifting plants, protecting & putting them in storage.

Contrasts & textures are what makes the garden - with alot of things grown mainly for their foliage, shapes and structure, if they flower then that is an extra bonus. But flowers like Dahlias & Cannas are also used to provide splashes of colour. Hardy elements can be incorporated into this mix too. Plants are chosen if they have character and something to offer from late July to the early October. They retain a freshness & do not go brown like fennel or cardoons.

C. Lloyd had written about doing such a garden in the 1970s and Fergus imagine it to be like walking into a Rousseau painting. The experience is to be three dimensional as opposed to the flatness that you can get in by just putting some bedding in a border. And to quote a line from Beth Chatto - 'to paint the sky' as well as the bottom.

Monday, 24 September 2012

A stormy day

Weather: Strangely still in the morning like the calm before a storm, apparently we were in the eye of one. Then sporadic showers became more insistent wet sheets of rain with a strong wind that battered everything around a bit especially knocking off all the ripe mulberries off the tree.

I had to clear out a lot of debris in the Exotic Garden and stake up a Impatiens balfourii that had been flattened into the path by the wind. Then I joined the study day that Fergus was doing on this particular garden and how to go about creating your own exotic haven.

More info about this soon.

Battening down the hatches

Weather: Cold in the morning, milder in the day. Slightly overcast.

Friday 21st - today's order of the day was staking up some Dahlia trees - imperalis as the tail end of a storm is coming towards us on Monday.

Then there was more planting in the Exotic Garden, I added some ferns to the base of a Colocasia fontanesii which has these long naked stems so it can be a bit sparse beneath their leaves, so we filled out the space underneath with some delicate Adiantum tenerum 'Farleyense' and Dryopteris erythrosora. They were great plants to work with it was easy to make them look like they had always been there or that they had sprouted up there themselves.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Cat in the frames

Titch the cat seems to have the right idea.

Peacock topiary

The secret to how Ben reaches the peacocks and prunes them. About 10 years ago some of the peacock heads were mysteriously lopped off, Ben has done a pretty good job of regrowing them.

General maintenance

Weather: Morning distinctly cold. Rest of day mild, sunny with the odd cloud (we're really lucky with the weather at the moment).

Today was a general clearing and maintenance day including watering and weeding the vegetable garden.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Plant it like you mean it

Weather: Morning cold but clear. Sunny, cloudy and a bit breezy for the rest of the day.

We did more planting in the Exotic Garden today. I put some Helichrysum petiolare 'variegata' (silvery plant on the right) next to the Senecio petasitis (far left) that I put in yesterday which has groovy furry leaves and bears yellow flowers. Fergus felt that more Persicaria virginiana were needed in the area that I was working on to help carry the the eye into the foliage even more which I agreed with. So I added to that. Although these plants won't stay in here very long the motto at Dixter is to plant it like we mean it to be permanent.
Unfortunately the Dahlia leaves have been attacked alittle by a fungal disease so they're looking a bit sad.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The art of planting the Dixter way II

The piece de resistance today was when we filled a gap with this huge Yucca elephantipes on the left like it had always been there. Towering above next to the Arundo donax & tree Dahlia imperalis.

When we position plants we have to consider how it will grow - where it would grow out from, how big it would get etc. For it not to look bitty or incongruous to it's setting. Even at the point it actually goes into the soil there is potential it can change or be different. Once we were ready to plant we tentatively poked around the area with a spade to check if there were any bulbs or obstructions.

When we were sure it was clear we dug a hole by 'chopping' the soil. If there is not enough width, then we go a bit deeper. We lined the hole with compost no. 2 that contains osmocote - which is a slow release fertiliser and mixed it in. Usually we would use an old soil mix but there wasn't much of that this time. We put the plant in, loosened up the roots a little to help it along. Then covered it back with soil whilst pressing it in and smoothing the surface over.

The art of planting the Dixter way I

First we put some Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) in

...then some Persicaria virginiana

finished with a fern called Dicksonia antartica which goes together very well with the texture of the Rhus glabra laciniata (aka smooth Sumach).

In the Exotic Garden some tired Verbena bonariensis & Chrysanthemum sangetum were taken out. The latter we had collected seeds from the day before. Then we did some planting where there were any blatant gaps.

We scouted the nursery for plants that we thought would be appropriate, laid out a selection, then it was a case of trial & error. Putting combinations together until we got something that we thought would work, placing them in the area of planting and making sure that it fitted in with everyone else. Then we would confirm with head gardener Fergus Garrett before we went ahead, who would make changes or give his consent.

The stakes are high

Weather: Cooler but still warm. Heavy dew in the morning. Sunny.

Going into the thicket with the 'tickle stick' to aerate compacted soil in areas that we had worked on:
We did more staking today, namely Dahlias again. This time we tackled Emory Paul which as a whole plant is tall & dense. It made me realise even more just how much of a riddle it can be and how important it was to have the right sized stakes and do it as early on as possible/ necessary, and then it being a gradual & continual process of tying it in as it grows if required. It is a task that can easily take up to a couple of hours.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The art of staking

Weather: It was around 16 °C today. Sunny & cloudy

There were a lot of Dahlias in the Exotic Garden that needed staking today. As Emma who I worked with describe - it's like ballet - the lady in her tutu is about to do her jump and be caught by her partner and it is to catch them in time so that they don't end up legs flailing everywhere.

Dixter has a very special way of staking, it's quite hard to describe but I shall do so briefly and try to illustrate it better at some point. Basically green twine is used, a clove hitch knot is made around the stake, in this case bamboo. One loops the string around the stem of what they want to hold up - always best underneath a node. But it is done in this way that the string is still adjustable if needing to be tightened. Then once the string has gone round securing the desired stem(s) the two ends are tied together in a special knot that allows it to be easily untied if further adjustments are necessary.

Dahlia 'Grenadier' is one of the ones I have been working on today.

It is amazing how you can use it to manipulate a plant and that the string & cane can still remain almost invisible.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

A different kind of meadow

Friday 14th
We moved onto cutting the meadow areas next to the big pond at the front of the house and it was interesting how different it was to the ones we have done so far. Here it was mainly Juncus - a very straight sedge grass and ribbons of dark lush greens.

We also cut and filled a bag full of bracken as this is used to cover the Arundo donax

Pricking out

Friday 14th

Weather: Overcast and windy

One of my jobs today was pricking out some Digitalis 'Candy Mountain'. First I wetted a compost mix of no. 1 to the right moisture until it held some form in my hand. Then I filled up a plug tray with this soil, lifted it slightly and dropped the tray down on the floor, dibbed my fingers in each plug very lightly so that I could see the soil had gone down into the plugs properly, and filled any gaps if necessary. As they were trays of 96 it was best to carry them by holding the middle rather than the sides because of the weight of the soil.

Then we took the seedlings out of its pot, eased sections of them apart gently. With a dibber I poked a hole into a plug, carefully lifted out a seedling by its leaves lowered the roots gently into the hole and using the dibber covered soil around it. Being lefthanded I worked from right to left so as not minimise crushing any by accident and put larger ones in the middle and smaller ones on the outside. Then I put them in a cold frame watered them in and put a dutch light over it as well as some shade.

Gravetye Manor

On Thursday I didn't do so much in the garden because I was lucky enough to join a visit to Gravetye Manor. There has been a week long symposium at Dixter where gardeners can come and get exclusive gardening tuition. As part of it they go and visit other gardens of interest nearby and this was one of them.

Gravetye is like a hidden secret - it is the garden of William Robinson who was a writer, gardener & botanist from 1838 - 1953 and was very influential in the history of British gardens. It is now a luxurious hotel & restaurant.

He inspired people to bring back 'nature' and naturalise wild flowers and plants into their gardens and he is renowned for his work 'The Wild Garden'. Interestingly enough Daisy Lloyd who started the gardens at Dixter was hugely inspired by his work & this book. And Tom Coward who is now the talented head gardener of Gravetye used to work at Dixter.

There was a stepping in time feel about the place - the manor building itself is from Elizabethan times, but it was as if the sceneries themselves were one of the beautiful prints lifted straight out of Robinson's book from the late 1800s.

The garden also has an ingenious kitchen garden that drains frost & works like a greenhouse but outdoors, an old watercress bank, Victorian cold frames & greenhouses, a sister pond to Monet's water garden in Giverny and much more. Tom is sensitively restoring all aspects of the garden as it has seen a bit of neglect over the years, but it also has the dreamy opportunity for creativity and new innovations too.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

A quiet refuge

I was told that this was a spot that Christopher Lloyd would sit some days when the garden was open to the public, a spot where he wouldn't be seen (when it was uncut of course).

A gradual progression

I am couple of a days delayed with my posts because I have had problems with the internet.

Thursday 13th September

Weather: A distinct chill in the air in the morning - autumn is coming. A bit breezy. Hot in the sun, cool in the shadows.

We have nearly finished cutting down all of the meadows in front of the Long Border.

In the background is the close cutting mower we run across the cut meadow to cut the grass down even more. We also have to strim and manually pull out & cut down the tricky bits around the trees.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Meadows in a bag

Not so much to report home about today except that one has to be careful when doing the same task everyday that one doesn't lose touch of why one is doing it. For example to not overdo the deadheading in the exotic garden, to keep stepping back, looking & remembering what we are trying to achieve. Sometimes a Dahlia or a Rosa is just about to die back but still has vibrancy & colour and still offers something to the aesthetics of it all so it is best to leave them. The discretion of this can get a bit blurry but thoughtful consideration has to be at least maintained each time.

Some of the cut grass from the meadow cuttings this time were bagged up in big ton bags, as we are selling them to someone who wants to use them as strewings to create/ enhance their own meadow area, so we made sure to only put the diversely rich stuff in.

Colchicum autumnales are starting to appear in the meadows at the front of the house.

For the rest of the day it was my half day for catching up with things, my plant ident & starting my first project which is looking at planting in cracks. More info about these soon.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Tracmaster & vampire plant

Today in the meadows I got to use the Tracmaster.

It's a curious machine - it has a 'dead man' handle on it, so that when I let go it will stop instantly. There's a choke I have to pull to get it going, two levers - one is for the blades to move & cut or be still and the other is for the gears (1 neutral & 2). It has to be used at the lower gear otherwise the machine throttles itself to destruction, plus it hopefully gives wildlife the chance to get away in time. The 'scything' blade is wide at the front, one has to place the uncut grass where the middle of the nose of the machine is to make sure it goes over patches properly & doubly if necessary. It moves of it's own accord and there is a handle that you can pull and push for it to go forward & backwards to help with the manoeuvre of it. The steering of it is quite tricky, as you tend to work against the force of where it is going, and it vibrates into your hands in make them feel numb especially the left one.

Above is a great example of the contrast of an area that has too much nutrients and meadowland - on the left the grass is very green and of only one species. This might be because Christopher Lloyd used to burn bonfires there and the ashes enriched the soil. On the right hand side much more is happening.

It was really interesting that the area where we were cutting today was mainly Yellow Rattle (aka Rhinanthus minor or the 'vampire' plant) and gnat weed. A north facing slope has less diversity than a south facing one, and this one was facing north. Opposite it there is a slope that is facing south and that is where most of the rare orchids e.g. the spotted & greenwings are found. Rhinanthus minor is interesting in that it acts as a parasite to grass and keeps it low, this is great for the diversity of meadows as this encourages other plants to grow more. They are named so because of their dried seedheads rattle when you brush past them. They're an annual, have yellow hooded flowers, grows from 4 - 15 cm, seeds need to be scattered from September - early December and they like to be trampled in - which is fine as we walk over patches we have cut all the time. Bumblebees really like them.

Hide and seek

There is a wealth of wildlife in the gardens of Dixter, constantly I am surrounded by birds like blackbirds and ravens darting elusively into hedges and foliage. It is almost like a game that they play with you, popping out and then scuttering into their maze of undergrowth.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Pot plants

I was generally doing watering, clearing out pots of dead or unwanted plants. For plants that were a little pass their sell by date & needed planting out we made these into pot displays. I did this for a load of Ipomoea 'Heavenly Blue'. In a pot around 40cm wide and same again deep I filled with soil around two thirds of the way. Then I created a pyramid 2m high with three bamboo canes and placed the plants around them. Then I would weave the Ipomoea through the three canes and tie it where necessary for support. Any yellowing/ dead leaves were removed. It was topped up with soil but not so that it was level with the top, as this is not conducive for watering and more likely to cause run off and the plant not being able to uptake water properly. We also put pea sticks (about 30cm tall) around them just at the base and snipped off the plant's tips so that it would branch out more. General rule to help the presentation of plants in pots to look better - to place them on the outskirt of the pot and work your way inwards.

Below is an Ipomoea in bloom in the Exotic Garden next to Rosa Chanelle. I personally feel that the colour would go better with something like the orange of Dahlia 'David Howard'.

Pottering about

Todays deadheading & clearing of the Exotic Garden nearly filled up a whole bucket, as a weekend has passed since it was last done.

Nursery Induction

I was told the different pot sizes that we used which included 3.5"/ 9cm, 5"/ 12cm and the prices they correspond with. Pots are not needed to be thoroughly cleaned out or sterilised so this enables microorganisms to help plants along.

Plant storage
I was shown all the spaces that plants were stored, so that I would know where people meant if they said things like under Leylandia, The Loggia or down the track. There is a computer room for checking up plants, a potting shed, a tools & soil mixing shed called the The Long Barn, the nursery shop where bulbs are stored. Threes glass houses - one is called Michael's house and the other Kathleen who both work exclusively in the nursery. Michael specialises in seeds & Kathleen in cuttings. The third one is called Begonia house where there is a heated mat & also where tender plants & cuttings are stored - a basic heater is used in winter when it's cold to keep the house at 12 degrees. Winter is tricky for ventilation as it's hard to maintain temperature when it's so cold outside. There is also a lean-to for plants that need a bit more cover. For the best use of space - pots of plants are stored in syncopated lines (like below), and the line always starts from the top down. Labels need to be placed at least in the last pots either end of the line.

Labels here are written in capitals - not the correct Latin way, but it helps it be more legible and save the problem of having to decipher any indistinguishable handwriting. On one side plants with long names are split into two lines, on the other side if sowing seeds - the source (e.g. Dixter/ Chilterns) and date below this.

Double glassed cold frames are used for starting off seeds - this helps spread out heat better, at this stage heat is more important than light. But as soon as they have germinated plants must be moved to a cold frame/ greenhouse where they can get the light levels they need and not over stress. The cold frames are shaded if it's too sunny & hessian/ burlap is added as a covering when it too cold. It's like a frame within frame, but the inner one is sunken down a bit so that it is better insulated. Glass frames are heavy, the best way to handle them is to slide them across and if needing to carry them, bending my knees & using crux of belly to support the weight.

I was also shown the different mixes of compost - John Innes 1, 2 & 3 are used. An old soil mix from emptied out pots is usually enriched with a bit more fertiliser and used for potting on. More info on how the compost is made, which one is used for what and formulas coming soon! Dixter's formula is good in that it uses less peat than usual mixtures.