Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The departure of Emma

This lovely lady here is Emma Seniuk, she has been the North American scholar at Dixter for the past two years, and is now returning to Philadelphia in The States on Wednesday to begin her new job as section gardener at one of the most prestigious gardens in the world - Chanticleer.

I have had the fortune of getting to know her as a great gardener and for her to share her wealth of knowledge, experience and passion with me. I have also had the pleasure of having her as a great housemate for two months. We wish you all the best Emma - you will be sorely missed!

Monday, 29 October 2012

In the potting shed

It felt like Christmas had come early when we were all in the potting shed doing cuttings on Friday. With the low light, the wood burning stove blazing away and classical music flowing out from the radio.

A frog or a toad

This little friend grouchily moved out of my way when I nearly brushed him up by accident.

Cuttings III

Friday 26th
Weather: Fairly dry, overcast warmish day with the odd tiny spittle of rain. It suddenly turned cold towards the end of the day.

Collecting material from the Actinida. 

We did more cuttings today, including more Tagetes lemonii, Begonia metallica (we cut large leaves down almost into triangles for these), Centranthus ruber, and a type of Actinida (related to the kiwi fruit). All nodal cuttings except for the Actinida, which we have done as hardwood cuttings. Depending on the plant but I can roughly fit about 20-25 cuttings in a 5" pot.

Begonia metallica cuttings

I also potted up Phlomis tuberosa & Aconitum kelmscott seedlings. As we're tight for space and we are just overwintering these plants, we put them in a more restrictive pot size. We placed these underneath a coldframe.

Loam making

Thurs 25th
Weather: Misty/ foggy, darker and more gloomy.

More loam making - the compost soil was more wet and claggy today so it was like working with putty. But we had the people power and it was best to get a load done whilst we had the resources. Also because in a few days time the garden will close for winter and we would want to fully concentrate working on the borders, lifting out plants etc.

Throwing the soil into the sieve

Another world

This scene was seen on the roof of the cow shed. From the accumulation of so many wet days, it has been the perfect environment for mushrooms. I have sighted so many different weird & wonderful types. I wished I knew a lot more about them and that it was part of British culture to be more accustomed to them.

Saving plants

Wednesday 24
Weather: The sun broke through today though it remained misty in the horizon.

I didn't start with the Exotic Garden for a change, as -2 °C was predicted for this Saturday morning, so we worked on saving tender plants instead. The prediction changed to 2 °C later. But it is better that we are covering our backs anyway. We selectively took out some Salvia confertiflora and Leonotis leonurus var. alba planted as bedding in the Barn Garden.

Clearing a bed is quite a meticulous process - we dug the plants out and then much reduced the rootballs and cut down the plant. We cut the leonotis back quite a lot, whilst the salvia we cut about half off - they flower from two year old wood and not cutting them right back allows them to flower better. They're quite brittle and we tried to be really careful especially flowering shoots that are poking up for next year. Both will be stored undercover, some of the salvias will be kept in the warm Begonia greenhouse.

The leonotis has been grown from seed by Emma and hasn't flowered this year, but hopefully after storing and growing them on more it will do so next year now.

The bed then is turned over about a fork/ spade length deep. Any roots or leaves are picked out. The soils is evened out with the back of a fork as much as possible then protected by boards - this is done so that when it rains the soil does not get too wet and swollen with water, especially as it is clay based.

Autumn colours

You look and look again, and it is as if one day it just happens. It is as if all around you many leaves have changed colour overnight, or that you have only just really noticed it. It is moments like these that autumn is undeniably here and winter is not too far round the corner.

The leaves on the yellow leaved sorbus has fallen off already but the red Vitis coignetiae behind it is still going strong.

Humus & loam

Tuesday 23
Weather: Foggy again but cooler.

We dug into the oldest of the three compost mounds today. Unfortunately a layer of thatch at the bottom had not decomposed yet, but at the heart of it were precious layers of deep dark black humus smoking away. We chopped into it as vertically as possible with a spade, and like peat it gave way easily. Then we used the good stuff on the bed we had cleared yesterday in the High Garden for the Hemerocallis trials. First we laid it on the surface and then we dug it in about a spades depth.

Humus enriched soil

I also took part in making loam and it was fascinating. Most gardens & nurseries will just buy it in from commercial businesses as it is a labour intensive process, so it is a rare insight to see and do such a thing. Dixter is quite a self-sufficient garden and generates a lot of their own including propagating their own plants. It gave me a deeper appreciation and a better understanding of the effort it takes to do these things.

Steaming hot humus, Thomas and Graham getting at the good stuff

There are already mounds outside the nursery used for this purpose. We chipped humus off 'the cliff' - a side of the mound that had been worked on already and is like a steep precipice, especially as strata like layers have been revealed. We added even darker and richer stuff from the top into it. Rotovated it several times (we ran the machine over it at least 13 times - basically it is the 'Tracmaster' but with a rotating blades attachment changed onto it) so that it was broken down into a fine tilth. Then threw it into a wheelbarrow through a sieve so that it was even finer. Then this was transported to the soil shed ready for going through the soil steriliser.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Cuttings II

Friday 19th
Weather: Warm but fairly rainy almost all day.

I mainly did cuttings today and it was interesting to try out different ways of propagating one thing.

Taking cuttings from the prickly Rosa virginiana that has great autumn colours

- Hydrangea aspera villosa - as we wanted to leave the flowering stems we are testing if we can propagate it by using the ones that have flowered. They can be done internodal so we did a mix of this and nodal - depending on what we could get from our material.
- Rosa virginiana has great autumn colour. For the material we cut off the most vigourous 1st year stems that were around pencil thickness. We are also trying out some tip cuttings (using material that is about 10cm long) and fertile seeds (this will take 3 - 4 years to flower - Dixter always like to try different ways of propagating).
- Dianthus from a 'mix' but we selected the dark red ones and did tip cuttings which were around two nodes below the tips, again stripping any excess leaves and leaving three or four at the tip and cutting these down into half. We dipped them in rooting powder prior to putting them in the growing medium.
- Persicaria vaccinnifolia - also about 10-12cm long. General rule - the thinner the material the longer the cutting should be.
- Hard wood cutting and semi ripes from Viburnum opulus compactum.

See also Cuttings (1) for details. 

Lifting perennials and preparing for the Hemerocallis trials

Monday 22nd
Weather: Warm with a mist that hung over us the whole day - forecast said that it was a 100% humidity and will be like this for the rest of the week. The ground is like one big marsh and I am getting attacked by midges constantly.

The Exotic garden takes a little longer to clean now as more and more plants die back and produce more debris.

I worked in the high garden helping to lift out perennials and clearing it so that it is ready for the 200+ Hemerocallis trial we are doing. This included Telekia speciosa (aka Yellow Ox-Eyed Daisies with flowers that look a little like Inula), Rumex acetosa (common edible sorrel), different kinds of Galanthus. And transferring some Verbascum 'Olympicum' to a temporary bed until we are ready to plant them in our stockbeds. We took off the bottom layers of the leaves and watered them in when we had transplanted them. We are using boards a lot so as not to step directly onto the soil and compact it, especially as it is so wet at the moment.

In the same bed there are also Verbascum 'Christo’s Yellow Lightning' identifiable by it's distinctive curly crinkly edges and red vein in the middle of the its leaves. As with a lot of plants at Dixter there is a great story behind it - to read all about it Click Here

Monday, 22 October 2012

The ride on mower

Thursday 18th
Weather: Around 16. Broken clouds - some spot of sunshine.

I drove the ride on mower today and learnt just that in order to manoeuvre a trailer you have to think in reverse of how you manuoeuvre a car. Otherwise it's quite straightforward. On the left there is a lever that I have to pull out before I can turn the ignition on and then to press back in as soon as I have got the engine going. When I turn the ignition on I have to wait for the screen in the middle to clear first before it's ready. The 'speed' lever with the rabbit and the tortoise markings is pretty comprehensive.

The forward and backward pedal is all in one and is situated on the right. There is also a break pedal at the top too. 

We finished cutting the last of the meadows today. It's great that as another area gets cut back you step into a new perspective and see the garden from a different side.

Then towards the end of the day we propagated some Rhodendron by layering it. We made a small hole around the stem that we wanted to bury, and tried two variations - one was to tie the end around a stake and angle it somehow so that it keeps the stem in the ground, but for the string to remain above the soil surface and we cover the stem over with earth. The other was to tie the string to the stake and stem in such a way that when you thrust it into the ground it buries the stem underneath the soil. The only reason that you wouldn't do the latter is if the string rots as it's underground, but we used tarred twine, so hopefully it will last until it roots.

Monster root and hardwood cuttings

Wednesday 17th
Weather: Rain overnight. Another day for lingering - sunny but very windy.

I dug out a monster of a Symphytum today in the Peacock Garden. I thought it was several plants, but it was actually one big motherboard root that had gotten cavernous inside. I tried to extract as much of the roots out as possible, as it only takes a bit for it to get going again. Then I divided it into four and transplanted it to a place down at the farm where it was required. It is great for making into a plant feed. I came across it a lot in the community group allotment that I ran and there have been people who have dedicated livelihoods praising and investigating the virtues of this plant especially in organic growing. But you have to watch that it doesn't take over too easily as it's so keen to grow and spread.

Hardwood cuttings

I also did hardwood cuttings of Salix balfourii. People have slightly different variants on how to do these. But I was taught at college to have it about pencil thickness and approximately the length of a secateur. You take all flower buds & leaves off. And one way of identifying top and bottom (very important in getting it the right way up) is by cutting the bottom bit straight and the top bit slanted. You always cut to a node at the bottom. We set 30 of these in a pot 4.5" approx. It is best to have two or three nodes immersed in the soil with three quarters of the stick covered up. We watered them in well and have left them in an open frame in an area called the Orchard Frames. Then we will try and not let them get too wet so that they don't end up rotting.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

A deep clean

Tuesday 16th
Weather: Windy but sunny & warm - one of those days that Christopher Lloyd says are for lingering. The wind has been giving Dixter a bit of a battering though, blowing off seedheads that otherwise would add interest to this time of year.

I did a deeper clean in the Exotic Garden today - there have been things we have been hesitant to cut out, especially ripped/ yellowed Tetrapanax papyrifer leaves, so that we don't expose too much bare space. But it has come to the point where it looks better that it's sparser than seeing a raggedy old plant/ old leaf clutching onto the last vestige of life. The result was I got slimed on by Dahlias especially from the volume of Emory Pauls and covered in hair by the Tetrapanax, which also sent me sneezing and wheezing. But it was very satisfying process & felt like a good thing to do. There are also more and more leaves to sweep up as Autumn moves on. I managed to finish everything though before visitors started coming in.

We've started to give the Orchard, High and Peacock gardens a bit of a clear out also including cutting down geraniums to the ground and removing symphytums (comfrey).

The Peacock Garden (The skeletons of Verbascum olympicum on either side, the grass inbetween is Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster')

The bed (on the right) that I was working on in the High Garden

You can smell the sweetness of the compost from afar. Up close it is a contrast of this and a sharp pungency.

Study Day - Garden worthy plants

Monday 14th
Weather: Very cold in the morning, 5 - 6°C. Mainly sunny with spots of rain. 

This was a really interesting session for me, as it made me think about elements that I hadn't thought about before. When a plant didn't work I had assumed that it was because I had not grown it in the right conditions. I had not considered that it might be the variety that wasn't suitable. As well as learning tips about choosing the right plants - it was also about a way of looking. Instead of just being given a list of, it provoked you to think. It helped me see why it is important to go to gardens, observe their habits in different conditions, to ask people growing them questions about it and why plant trials are actually really important.

For example Corderia selloana 'Aureolineata' & are Corderia selloana 'Albolineata' look very similar but a Wisley trial showed that 'Albolineata' scorches in the summer, looks tired in autumn and awful in winter. 'Aureolineata' (above) on the other hand keeps it together and looks good all of these seasons.

Monday, 15 October 2012

A fern expedition

Friday 12th
Weather: Mainly sunny with the odd spit of rain. 

I have calculated that a general tidy up & deadheading of the Exotic Garden takes me one and a half hours. If there is any extra clearing or staking needed it would usually take me up to two.

Today I did cuttings of Salvia confertsiflora - the red velvety Brazilian sage, using similar principles as yesterday - see Cuttings post, cutting off any flowering parts.

Then me and gardener Graham went on a fern expedition and collected spores from approximately 40 different species. After each specimen we would clean our hands on a towel, so as not to contaminate one type of spores with another. We will be matching up the names and information with the photos also. Most ferns were ripe but there were the odd ones that we have marked to keep an eye on for when ready. A new greenhouse is being built down at 'The Farm' complex a couple of hundred metres from the garden where the ferns will be propagated and be housed. It was very exciting because it was looking at a known space with a new perspective, so there was a sense of adventure even in the familiar.

Examples of what we collected, I will be matching all of these with their names soon:

Dryopteris cristata

Graham drew a map of the garden & marked them on there. But we would consequentially take photographs of the ferns close up & of the location too, as well as noting as much helpful information on a sheet as possible and on the bags we were individually putting them in.


Thursday 11th
Weather: Cold, wintry feeling in the morning. Low lying mist, cloudy. Showers intermittently with the odd outbreak of sun.

I went round with Siew Lee & Fergus today to scout around the garden to see what cuttings we could do for the garden & the nursery before the first frost came in and the frenzy that would ensue afterwards. 

I took nodal cuttings from Tagetes lemonii and Hedera algeriensis 'Gloire de Marengo'. We used an approximate 5" terracotta pot. Cleaned it out, filled it up with an inch of grit, then to the top with a special cutting compost of:

1 part loam
2 parts peat
3 parts grit

A mix that doesn't have much nutrients in it, with the mind that cuttings would be potted on as soon as they had rooted.

We made sure it was moist enough and when it was full we gently tamped it down twice so that the soil would settle, but not so much so that the compost would be too compacted. We labelled the pot first with the name of the plant, and started around the edge with an approximate inch gap between each cutting (these will have the best chance of taking). Then we filled in the middle as close together as possible but not too squished up, so that plants still had room to breathe. The shorter cuttings would go around the edge and the taller ones in the middle. After that we would water them in & put them on the heated bench.

For the cuttings themselves - we always made sure they were the right way up, always with a node at the bottom and at least an inch length of material if possible. We would cut off any excess leaves except for two at the top, so that the plant can photosynthesise but not stress too much. Any really big leaves we would cut into two. It is possible to do the Hedera as internodal cuttings as well. We used a thin dibber to place plant into the soil, making sure that the cutting touched the bottom & it wasn't just air surrounding it.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Drivin' my tractor

Tuesday 9th
Weather: Mild. Constant light showers with the odd outbreak of sun.

We continued with the raking of the meadows today and transporting & piling the hay on top of the compost mound. Fergus & Simon the green wood worker worked on making another bespoke wooden rake for the job. The ones we had, had started to lose pegs here & there or had become half a rake and needed mending.

It is quite a skill to make a suitable rake - for ergonomics & for it to be effective for the job including length of handle and the width between each peg - I will have more technical details on this when I make one myself. A split is made at the bottom of the piece of wood carved as the handle, where it is attached to the rake head. A metal band is placed around the top of this split to prevent it from splitting further & unfavorably. We tested the rake as we worked and it was improved as we went.

Today was also my chance to drive a tractor with a trailer for the first time & it was thrilling! The tractor has a two gears so the usual 1, 2, 3 & reverse and a high & low range. It also has a lever at the side of the steering wheel that you can move up or down to adjust the speed (down increases and up decreases). The clutch has to be depressed when you change gears & the tractor has to be at a standstill for you to change them (you don't change it constantly like a car). When you stop you have to press down the clutch first and then the brake. The clutch is to the left of the steering wheel & the brake is on the right. You raise the clutch slowly when you are wanting to move away. When you stop and want to switch off the engine you pull out a button on the left, that has to be pushed in when you want to start the engine again. The ignition key is on the right and you only need to turn it lightly for the vehicle to come to life. Also when you are not using the brake & clutch you have to rest your feet above them.

Mound trouble

Wednesday 10th

Weather: Sunny. Cold in the morning but warm in the sun later on. A relief to have a full dry day. The sort of light now that casts long dark shadows.

We woke up today to find that one side of the compost mound we had been building up had collapsed to one side. This is the result of it not being consistently built up well, but this is hard when there are many different hands at the job of different skill sets and understanding. Technically the mound can go on almost double in size if done right. We propped up the side with big posts though and continued adding more layers, it will take less but a substantial amount can still be put on.

It is also time now to start harvesting the multifarious gourds that we have growing on the compost mounds. To wash & dry and to display them around the house.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Row by row

Monday 8th
Weather: A fine drizzle throughout most of the day.

Although it is still looking great in the Exotic Garden, it is getting trickier to retain it's illusion of being somewhere more tropical. As with the type of plants inside, leaves will start yellowing & falling, dying back & getting starker as it gets cooler and not regenerate as fast when you deadhead or cut back, so you have to be more particular about the choices you make.

We raked up the hay from one of the bigger meadows today. This was used as a car park during the plant fair last weekend so it was cut beforehand and had gotten very compacted. It was also very wet & heavy from the rain.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The HBGBS seminar - Arundel Castle

On Saturday we visited Arundel Castle. It is one of the oldest & complete castles in the country and has a lot of heritage, including Mary Queen of Scots diary. The Duke of Norfolk and his family resides here. Initially it seemed like quite a traditional restoration as we were shown their newly restored stew pond, but as Martin Duncan guided us through the grounds, it became more and more out of the ordinary.

This is one of the bridges leading inside the castle walls which the duke came racing out in his car like James Bond. They have had trouble mowing and strimming the steep banks (not a surprise as they were meant for keeping people out), so now they ingeniously have goats to keep the grass trim.

This is technically the Dukes back garden which has a hint of The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The lollipop trees are clipped Quercus ilex - Holm Oak.
As we went into The Collector's Earl garden this was even more the case. The castle & land has been within the Dukes family for 400 years. Thomas Howard was one of the first Earls and was nicknamed 'The Collector' because of the amount of art he acquired. This garden is dedicated to him and is an imaginary recreation of a Jacobean formal garden designed by Isabel & Julian Bannerman.

Equipped with golden agaves, water spouting dachshunds and a 'floating crown'.

We were also given a tour of the more conventional side of the kitchen gardens & victorian glasshouses, that uses permaculture principles and supplies the family.

Later in the day and on Sunday we had a Q & A session on challenges in the garden with an expert panel - from dog poo to mess room politics, and advice on grants & resources available.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The HBGBS seminar - Parham House

On Friday we went to Parham House with its rolling grounds & roaming deers. A family owned home that's open to the public. The borders there reflect the tapestry in the house and their walled garden is also used to grow cut flowers and vegetables using organic principles. It includes an orchard, a rose garden and an exotic garden - which seems to be the space Tom Brown the Head Gardener experiments in, as he comments that he doesn't have to worry about things complementing each there and that the more they clash the better. There was also the most well-built wendy house that I have ever come upon.

(The Wendy House - once a year Lady Emma & her children will light the fire inside and tell stories) 

Tom demonstrated double digging and then we had a go at doing this in the Rose Garden.

In the afternoon we did some useful taxonomy training with Ros Bennett who is a specialist in wild flowers. She pointed out key features and introduced to us floral formulae to help us identify plants better especially with the aid of a magnifying glass.

We were the group who got lucky with the weather, as it was suppose to rain all day until Saturday morning. But we found ourselves working in the sunshine. Not so fortunate for the group afterwards though as a drizzle set in.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The HBGBS seminar

It's been an intense full past 4-5 days but great. It was a chance to meet other trainees including ones who were doing the Professional Gardeners Guild scheme as well. We stayed at Dunford House which was a place that was full of living history itself - ex-home of Richard Cobden a man who was known for forming the Anti-Corn Law League in the 1830s, including a glasshouse built by Joseph Paxton (a small & modest one) and a real suffragette banner!

On Thursday & Friday evening each trainee presented a plant they had brought which they felt most represented their garden. Here are some of the highlights:

Wollemia nobilis - a rare plant that is classed as critically endangered was formerly only known in fossilized records until discovered in Australia in 1994. It can grow up to 25-40m. This is from Ness Botanical Gardens in Merseyside found and they grow it outside in a sheltered spot!

Banksia baxteri - an evergreen shrub that is from SW Australia and is popular in that country as a cut flower.

Athyrium filix-femina 'Victoriae' - this specimen is from the Garden House and is the only one that has been found in the wild in the UK. It was chanced upon in a farmers field.

Plant fair preparations continue

With the amazingly packed past few days I am quite behind with this blog. But here a summaries of what I have been up to are coming up:

Wednesday 3rd
Weather: Very changeable. Intermittent rain throughout, the odd spell of sunshine, warm and cold.

It was more clearing and continuing to make the place look spick and span, including cleaning up plants for sale and making sure they were at their best. One of them was Artemisia lactiflora - the only wormwood plant grown for it flowers as well as for its foliage. Apparently it fares better having been grown in dry sandy soil and is hardier for it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Practice pots

Weather: Mild. Sporadic heavy & light showers. The sun broke through a few times.

I was drenched after finishing in the Exotic Garden today, it was like having a shower. It is saturated with water from the past couple of days. Can't say that the Dahlias are liking it so much as I remove colourful (and brown) sludge from the plants. I also had to replace a Impatiens balfourii that had completely died back with a Ricinus communis 'Zanzibariensis' and stake a few odd bits.

I got a bit carried away with sprucing up the potted plants in front of The Loggia. I treated it like one of the pots display areas and took to it with relish combining & composing different plants together.

Great Dixter Plant Fair

Great Dixter is all go for the plant fair this weekend. which unfortunately I will miss because I happen to have a seminar that I have to go to as part of my scholarship. It sounds exciting though, lots of high quality nurserymen & women from all over the country and abroad as well. There will be talks and even a dachshund dog show.

(Stalls being built)

Autumn clean

Monday 1st October
Weather - Very wet drizzle throughout most of the day. Not too cold.

Today was a big clear out day, helping Dixter look good when the plant fair takes place this weekend. I was part of the chain of clearing out pots of plants that were dead or had rotted away.

On Mondays there are a really lovely group of ladies from The English Gardening School who volunteer at Dixter - I hope to get a photo of them soon. They did the amazing job of tidying, organising and stacking up neatly the different pots that we have.

Unfortunately pernicious weeds like bindweed & diseased plants meet a doomed end at Pen Stump, found at the bottom of this track. There they will face a fiery death and be burnt.