July in the Garden 2009

The garden show season continues; Last month I was at the ‘Gardeners’ World Live’ show at the NEC in Birmingham. I hadn’t set foot in the place since I’d last filmed there in 1995. To begin with the scale of the thing was really off-putting and my natural reluctance to treat gardening as a retail experience stopped me from buying anything. As the days wore on I got swept up in the whole thing and realised that in fact these big gardening shows, where you can actually buy plants and products, are a great way of supporting small nurseries and big businesses alike. I wasn’t alone in giving in to this impulse; Alys Fowler, “Gardeners’ World’s” titian-haired beauty, expressed a similar surprise in finding she was beginning to lose her usual thrifty resolve.

My own acquisitive side got the better of me on the Friday and I ended up with six random cacti, a ‘Show Special’, to resume my childhood hobby of growing succulents. Also, I couldn’t resist splashing out on three cloches (“£10 each; £25 after the show”!) to use as ‘sun frames’ for my high summer foray into striking cuttings. I used to do this under upturned aquaria, another abandoned childhood hobby, but my new, plastic glazed, Victorian style, ‘leaded light’ cloches will do the trick even if they are hardly things of beauty.

Now that we are past the longest day there is a subtle change in the flowering palette in the garden. Some plants are switched into flower production by the turnaround in the daylength compared to the ‘period of darkness’ (aka ‘night’). Traditional high summer herbaceous borders reach their absolute peak, although these days the addition of spring flowering plants and late season perennials means that herbaceous and mixed borders need not be so ‘peaky’.

I guess my own signifier plant, which pinpoints this particular moment in the flowering year, is the fabulously cottagey, and highly scented, Lilium regale (Regal Lily). Although these continue to flower for many years, when planted out in beds and borders, it’s always good to plant a few new bulbs, in autumn or spring, in containers to guarantee the best blooms exactly where you want them. Watch out for the dreaded lily beetle and, in pots at least, vine weevils.

Lilies may be ‘old hat’ but a plant which has been flowering now for many weeks, and which still has plenty of life left in it, is Dianthus cruentus; a ‘species’, wild relative, of the garden pink or carnation. It needs good drainage and full sun but, given these conditions, seems easy enough. It has quite the most saturated, piercingly strong, vivid, crimson flowers held on airy stems in starry profusion. It’s a knockout and currently the jewel in my blooming crown. Mine came from ‘Phoenix Perennial Plants’ which is a specialist nursery belonging to one of this country’s most respected ‘plants people’ – the sparkly Marina Christopher.

Not sure that I want to bore you with lists of maintenance tasks for this, hopefully sunny, month. It’s mostly commonsense stuff like watering plants in pots and containers with added feed every other week. Cutting the grass, but not too short. Keep deadheading everything from roses to bedding plants in order to encourage the longest possible flowering period. On hot days use a hoe to clear more open areas of ground because the heat of the sun will ensure that any weeds dislodged by the hoe will die rapidly and not have a chance to regrow.

I did promise, last month, to mention my favourite little pond fish; the impossibly named ‘White Cloud Mountain Minnow’ – ‘WCMM’ for short! In small ponds, barrel water features and those tiny ‘pre-formed’ aquatic doo-dahs, WCMMs are perfect for keeping them free from mosquito larvae and the like. Although erroneously sold as tropical fish they are, in fact, hardy enough to survive the rigours of a southwest winter. When buying them ensure you source them from a stockist who has kept them as coldwater fish and not at tropical temperatures. My ‘tin bath’ pond froze almost solid, in the -11°C night last winter, yet the little fish emerged unscathed to flit around for another year. They used to breed successfully but now the offspring get eaten by dragonfly larvae before they get the chance to grow up into adults. Hence occasional ‘topping up’ with adults may be necessary in a small pond where natural predators reach unnaturally high numbers.

While we are on the subject of ponds it’s worth remembering that now is a good time to seek out water lilies to add a touch of glamour to even the tiniest pond. For small water features choose ‘pygmy’ varieties and take care to plant them at the depth suggested on the label – usually no deeper than 18”. It may be necessary to start them off at a shallower depth, by balancing the planting basket on a brick or two, before lowering them to the bottom of the pond over a couple of weeks as the lily pads extend on longer stalks. Do not be tempted to plant a ‘standard’ water lily variety in a small pond as it will rapidly outgrow its home and shade out the entire water surface. Ideally only about a third of the surface area of any pond should be shaded by vegetation; maybe a bit more in full sun but even less if the pond is already shaded by overhanging foliage.

After that suitably cooling, refreshing, topic I’ll let you get on with what will hopefully prove to be a warm and sunny month.