The weekend on which I happen to be writing this, I’ve also been celebrating my Mother’s 90th Birthday. Being a rather special milestone I wanted to buy her the sort of plant which you wouldn’t find in the average garden centre. To this end, I arranged to visit a specialist nursery whose list includes many specimen plants not usually offered in the general horticultural trade.
During my visit to this nursery, being shown round by its hugely impressive owner, I was reminded that at the ‘top’ of hobby gardening is a very rarefied world which you can only partake in if your level of horticultural interest is bordering slightly towards the obsessive. It reminded me that, as a degree student, I spent many happy hours in the nurseries of such luminaries as Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto, Liz Strangman and John Coke.
The last credit in that list should really read ‘Marina Christopher’; she was the little dynamo behind ‘Green Farm Plants’ and perhaps the best propagator I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Marina’s still going strong as ‘Phoenix Perennial Plants’—look it up on ‘RHS Nursery Finder’.
Even now, almost three decades later, I only comprehend a tiny fraction of what these plant collectors, propagators and nursery owners hold in their horticultural memory banks. The whole point of spending time amongst their plants is that a little of it rubs off and, over time, your own knowledge and inherent understanding increases practically subconsciously.
I’m not going to name the nursery I visited because I don’t think they’d thank me for it. Looking at their website, before sending an email requesting to visit ‘by appointment’, you don’t have to be very good at reading between the lines to realise that the owners are probably not the sort to be messed with!
‘Any road up for a packet of fags’; the plant I opted to buy, for my Mother, was a very sweet scented, relatively fast growing, free-flowering, Daphne : Daphne ‘Spring Beauty’. Obviously I couldn’t resist a little something for myself too, so I purchased the most wonderful, highly scented, season extending ‘sweet box’ : Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Tony Schilling’.
This plant seemed most fitting because not only does it have attributes making it different, possibly better, than the straightforward species, but the plant collector it is named after, Tony Schilling, brings this personal story full circle for me. When I first visited Elizabeth Strangman at ‘Washfield Nursery’, all those years ago, she was busy bulking up and naming plants that had come from one of Tony’s collecting trips in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s.
From memory, it was the same trip that brought back exciting new species and forms of such excellent plants as euphorbias, Omphalodes and, of course, hellebores. To feel the buzz surrounding these newly collected plants, before they entered commercial horticulture, years before they could be planted in the ‘average’ garden, was truly inspiring. Once experienced, never forgotten, so that every time I come across one of those plants, however many years later, I immediately get a glimpse of Liz, in my mind’s eye, shuffling amongst her, as yet unnamed, babies.
Anyway, this most recent trip fired my resolve to do more nursery visiting this year. Due to ‘stuff’ that’s gone on over the last decade, I’ve got out of the habit of actually enjoying my plants and getting a kick out of noticing the funny little foibles that sets one species, or selection, apart from another. Just now I’m enjoying pots of naked-flowering hellebores, dug up from the garden of a house I cannot live in anymore, as some of them date back to the originals I bought in the early 1990’s—fresh from Liz’s original hybridising experiments.
And now it’s ‘March in the Garden’: time to be planting such creatures out into beds and borders, giving then a good feed with blood, fish and bone plus some garden compost, where they will establish well as the weather warms and in plenty of time to withstand summer droughts. Bare-root plants, or plants that have been moved from elsewhere in the garden, will need plenty of water in their first year, at least, because, unlike container-grown plants, they are likely to have more ‘top growth’ than their root systems can support when lack of moisture threatens.
The same factors that make March a good time to plant out newly acquired plants, abundant soil moisture and warming weather, also allow weeds to expand rapidly in a rush to flower and set seed before you’ve even noticed them. Chief amongst these, for me, are ‘hairy bitter cress’ and groundsel. They’ve been biding their time, since germinating, but longer day lengths give them all the encouragement they need to romp away, stealing a march on their prettier rivals. Hand weed where you can but use a glyphosate based weed killer on large expanses, such as in gravel drives or beds which are due to be planted later, as glyphosate weed killers are non-specific (they kill all green things) but also non-persistent (they don’t kill the next plants to germinate or that get planted in the same soil).
How busy you will get in the garden this month will be dictated by just how warm / dry it is. If conditions allow then the first, high, cut of the lawn might be possible. Similarly, sowing seeds in situ and planting out young, but hardy, plants could be possible where emergency frost protection is feasible. I tend to move some newly raised plants out of the luxury of the greenhouse, into coldframes, with the aim that the frames are opened at every opportunity, during the day, but are closed at night. Other seedlings are pricked out of trays into small pots which in turn fill the space vacated by the plants that have gone into coldframes, and so the cycle continues.
One final tip; last year I experimented by performing an earlier version of what has become known as the ‘Chelsea Chop’. This is the process by which summer flowering herbaceous perennials are cut down around the time of the ‘Chelsea Flower Show’. This encourages bushier growth, controls their eventual height and also delays flowering a little bit so that you can extend the season of your herbaceous border, which might otherwise ‘peak too soon’.
My version, by dint of the time of year I have christened it the ‘Lamb Chop’, applies specifically to the pulmonarias in my garden. I guess it could also be applied to similarly early flowering ground cover—persicarias come to mind, maybe periwinkles too. Anyway, it is a very brutal, almost counter-intuitive, hack right back to soil level using sharp secateurs.
Pulmonarias are already producing new flower stems at this point but, I find, they get mixed up with last year’s brown leaves and so the display is somewhat diluted. Also, they get rather big, rather ‘out of hand’, very quickly—razing them to the ground checks their growth, removes old foliage and the first flush of flowers. The result is that flowering is delayed (coinciding better with the main flush of spring flowers) and the lungwort is bushier, ‘cleaner’ and altogether more manageable. A handful of ‘fish, blood and bone’, worked into the soil at the same time that the ‘Lamb Chop’ is carried out, ensures that they bounce back with a vengeance.
…and so the headlong rush into spring begins. Hold on tight it’s going to be a bumpy ride!