Spring began to fizz at Sissinghurst Castle, a look back to 2015 – and the whole show will just get better and better…. @Sissinghurst NT #SpringWatching

The gates open at 11am sharp and I’m the first to hand in my Shilling token (the price Vita originally charged visitors) to the helpful attendants and I’m flying through, skirting the lawns in front of the Tower and into the woodland Delos garden, before hitting the White Garden (bare bones at this time of year and striking still) – for a few fleeting minutes, I had the gardens to myself!

IMG_0696IMG_0673IMG_0697IMG_0698IMG_0703IMG_0704This lady, out in the open now but in summer, hidden among the foliage of a mature weeping pear, Pyrus salicifolia pendula.

IMG_0708The delicate metal tracery of this structure holds a vigorous, but tamed, Rosa mulliganii –

IMG_0710IMG_0712IMG_0713IMG_0714The magnolias have just burst into blossom here in the depths of Kent – they have been flowering for a couple of weeks nearer to me, at Kew and RHS Wisley – but this show is new.

IMG_0718IMG_0721Cutting through a gap in the hedge, we are out into the meadow and encompassing waterway.

IMG_0723Wood anemones throng one border

IMG_0726

The bee keepers are taking their first look at the three hives since the autumn – one is doing very well, two less so, but still alive. He introduced himself – Roger, or Robert?

IMG_0736IMG_0742IMG_0743IMG_0746In many seasons, the show of narcissus is over before the gardens open for the year – this year we can all enjoy the display.

IMG_0739IMG_0747IMG_0750IMG_0748Long vistas created with the Yew hedging – views which criss-cross the gardens and make it seem infinitely larger than it is…

IMG_0752IMG_0753IMG_0754IMG_0756IMG_0759IMG_0783IMG_0788IMG_0761Crossing over into the Lime Walk, underplanted with a myriad spring bulbs, many housed in pots sunk into the ground to give them the conditions they need, allowing unfettered growth to the weaker plants and limiting the spread of the more vigorous types. This is all mapped out with mathematical precision, which belies the very natural look achieved!

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Extending on from the Lime Walk is the Nuttery, a less formal though still linear space with coppiced trees and a carpet of woodland spring plants.

IMG_0768IMG_0766

IMG_0866IMG_0876IMG_0878IMG_0883A rather lovely combination of peaches and cream, this flowering quince against the old brick wall.

Figaro, the Sissinghurst Cat.

Pruning – and training – roses the Sissinghurst Way. I’ll add some links to this technique, which looks marvellous. Equally well-tamed, these wall trained figs –

A pale pink Pulsatilla – Perlen Glocke

IMG_0908IMG_0789IMG_0801IMG_0793IMG_0797IMG_0796IMG_0792IMG_0918and from the top of the Tower, a panorama of the gardens, wider estate and countryside beyond…

IMG_0921IMG_0923IMG_0924IMG_0930IMG_0935IMG_0922IMG_0941IMG_0937IMG_0927IMG_0942IMG_0945IMG_0947IMG_0949IMG_0953IMG_0958IMG_0961IMG_0963IMG_0965IMG_0972IMG_0973IMG_0974IMG_0661

 

LINKS

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden/

and especially this blog –

https://sissinghurstcastle.wordpress.com/ – notes from the gardeners at Sissinghurst..

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenstovisit/3347586/Growing-roses-the-Sissinghurst-way.html

http://thegallopinggardener.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/up-in-air-at-sissinghurst.html

http://thegallopinggardener.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/september-garden-highlights.html

 

From my archives…

https://teddingtongardener.com/?s=sissinghurst

https://teddingtongardener.com/2014/03/14/rosa-mulliganii-roses-and-the-sissinghurst-technique/

https://teddingtongardener.com/2013/09/18/late-summer-at-sissinghurst/

https://teddingtongardener.com/2013/01/23/the-white-garden-sissinghurst/

 

Spring begins to fizz at Sissinghurst Castle – and the whole show will just get better and better…. @Sissinghurst NT #SpringWatching

The gates open at 11am sharp and I’m the first to hand in my Shilling token (the price Vita originally charged visitors) to the helpful attendants and I’m flying through, skirting the lawns in front of the Tower and into the woodland Delos garden, before hitting the White Garden (bare bones at this time of year and striking still) – for a few fleeting minutes, I had the gardens to myself!

IMG_0696IMG_0673IMG_0697IMG_0698IMG_0703IMG_0704This lady, out in the open now but in summer, hidden among the foliage of a mature weeping pear, Pyrus salicifolia pendula.

IMG_0708The delicate metal tracery of this structure holds a vigorous, but tamed, Rosa mulliganii –

IMG_0710IMG_0712IMG_0713IMG_0714The magnolias have just burst into blossom here in the depths of Kent – they have been flowering for a couple of weeks nearer to me, at Kew and RHS Wisley – but this show is new.

IMG_0718IMG_0721Cutting through a gap in the hedge, we are out into the meadow and encompassing waterway.

IMG_0723Wood anemones throng one border

IMG_0726

The bee keepers are taking their first look at the three hives since the autumn – one is doing very well, two less so, but still alive. He introduced himself – Roger, or Robert?

IMG_0736IMG_0742IMG_0743IMG_0746In many seasons, the show of narcissus is over before the gardens open for the year – this year we can all enjoy the display.

IMG_0739IMG_0747IMG_0750IMG_0748Long vistas created with the Yew hedging – views which criss-cross the gardens and make it seem infinitely larger than it is…

IMG_0752IMG_0753IMG_0754IMG_0756IMG_0759IMG_0783IMG_0788IMG_0761Crossing over into the Lime Walk, underplanted with a myriad spring bulbs, many housed in pots sunk into the ground to give them the conditions they need, allowing unfettered growth to the weaker plants and limiting the spread of the more vigorous types. This is all mapped out with mathematical precision, which belies the very natural look achieved!

IMG_0762IMG_0829

Extending on from the Lime Walk is the Nuttery, a less formal though still linear space with coppiced trees and a carpet of woodland spring plants.

IMG_0768IMG_0766

IMG_0866IMG_0876IMG_0878IMG_0883A rather lovely combination of peaches and cream, this flowering quince against the old brick wall.

Figaro, the Sissinghurst Cat.

Pruning – and training – roses the Sissinghurst Way. I’ll add some links to this technique, which looks marvellous. Equally well-tamed, these wall trained figs –

A pale pink Pulsatilla – Perlen Glocke

IMG_0908IMG_0789IMG_0801IMG_0793IMG_0797IMG_0796IMG_0792IMG_0918and from the top of the Tower, a panorama of the gardens, wider estate and countryside beyond…

IMG_0921IMG_0923IMG_0924IMG_0930IMG_0935IMG_0922IMG_0941IMG_0937IMG_0927IMG_0942IMG_0945IMG_0947IMG_0949IMG_0953IMG_0958IMG_0961IMG_0963IMG_0965IMG_0972IMG_0973IMG_0974IMG_0661

 

LINKS

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden/

and especially this blog –

https://sissinghurstcastle.wordpress.com/ – notes from the gardeners at Sissinghurst..

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenstovisit/3347586/Growing-roses-the-Sissinghurst-way.html

http://thegallopinggardener.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/up-in-air-at-sissinghurst.html

http://thegallopinggardener.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/september-garden-highlights.html

 

From my archives…

https://teddingtongardener.com/?s=sissinghurst

https://teddingtongardener.com/2014/03/14/rosa-mulliganii-roses-and-the-sissinghurst-technique/

https://teddingtongardener.com/2013/09/18/late-summer-at-sissinghurst/

https://teddingtongardener.com/2013/01/23/the-white-garden-sissinghurst/

 

Rosa mulliganii – roses and the Sissinghurst Technique

DSCF5127

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Rosa mulliganii, the rose used at the centre of the White Garden at Sissinghurst, threading its way over a filigree pergola. Vigorous, yet delicate and beautiful, a tracery of stems creating windows through into the garden. And (above) here it is in Kew Gardens. A Monster of a Plant…. A huge abundance of bright rose hips smother the dense mounded thicket.

David Austin have it right when the describe this rose thus –

This massive rambler is one of the biggest of all climbing roses in this country. It produces small, white flowers, held in huge broad trusses of anything up to 150, followed by small orange-red hips in autumn. Fine, glossy, almost evergreen foliage, with leaves of seven leaflets. Late flowering. Similar to ‘R. longicupis’. 30ft.

Here it is at Sissinghurst –

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The pruning regime at Sissinghurst must be strict! It is, read on…

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenstovisit/3347586/Growing-roses-the-Sissinghurst-way.html

Growing roses, the Sissinghurst way

Sissinghurst’s roses are the best in the country. Now’s the time to learn how it’s done, says Sarah Raven

Visitors to the rose garden at Sissinghurst in high summer are confronted with one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful spectacles in England.

Fountains of roses, voluptuous, delicious-smelling, out-of-control geysers of flowers, effuse all over the garden. You don’t get those boring little twiggy bushes, all leg and no body, surrounded by bare ground.

The Sissinghurst rose garden is the opposite of that: abundance, fullness, nothing held back, plants pumping out flowers for your pleasure, as if high on some mysterious but potent plant drug.

But this is the great Sissinghurst trick. What looks like unbridled generosity relies on meticulous work behind the scenes earlier in the year, when precision horticulture guarantees that wonderful romantic effect. And now, at the beginning of the growing season, you can see how the gardeners do it.

Come to Sissinghurst in the next couple of weeks and you will see for yourself how the gardeners have pruned and trained the roses, and to admire the beautiful, intricate webs of rose stems, with green and copper leaves just emerging but not yet too full to hide their design.

The Sissinghurst rose training technique originated at Cliveden with the Astors’ head gardener Jack Vass, who moved to Sissinghurst in 1939.

Vita Sackville-West loved her roses, particularly the dark, rich Gallicas such as ‘Charles de Mills’, ‘Tuscany Superb’ and ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’, but it was Jack Vass who started to grow them in this exceptional way, and they have been pruned and trained like this at Sissinghurst ever since. Other National Trust properties send their gardeners here to learn this ingenious technique.

The philosophy can be summed up as “treat them mean, keep them keen”. If you put every stem of a rose plant under pressure, bending and stressing it, the rose will flower more prolifically. The plant’s biochemistry tells the bush it’s on the way out and so needs to make as many flowers as possible.

  • Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Sissinghurst, nr Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2AB (01580 710701; www.nationaltrust.org). Open 17 Mar-2 Nov from 11-6:30pm. Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays.

THE SISSINGHURST TECHNIQUEClimbers and ramblers

The pruning season at Sissinghurst starts in November with the climbers and ramblers that cover almost every one of the terracotta brick walls.

First, the gardeners cut off most of that year’s growth. This keeps the framework of the rose clear and prevents the plant from becoming too woody.

Next, large woody stems are taken out – almost to the base – to encourage new shoots. These will flower the following year.

The remaining branches are re-attached to the wall, stem by stem, starting from the middle of the plant, working outwards, with the pruned tip of each branch bent down and attached to the one below.

Climbers such as ‘Paul’s Lemon Pillar’ are a bit more reluctant than ramblers like ‘Albertine’ and the famous Rosa mulliganii on the frame in the centre of the White Garden, which are very bendy and easy to train.

Shrub roses

Once the wall roses are done, it’s the turn of the border shrubs. They should be pruned before they come into leaf to prevent leaf buds and shoots from being damaged as their stems are manipulated. Depending on their habit, shrub roses are trained in one of three ways.

The tall, rangy bushes with stiffer branches (such as ‘Charles de Mills’, ‘Ispahan’, ‘Gloire de France’, ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ and ‘Camayeux’) are twirled up a frame of four chestnut or hazel poles. Every pruned tip is bent and attached to a length below.

The big leggy shrubs, which put out great, pliable, triffid arms that are easy to tie down and train, are bent on to hazel hoops arranged around the skirts of the plant. Roses with this lax habit include ‘Constance Spry’, ‘Fantin-Latour’, ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’, ‘Coupe d’Hébé’, ‘Henri Martin’ and ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’.

All the old and diseased wood is removed and then, stem by stem, last year’s wood is bent over and tied onto the hazel hoop. You start at the outside of the plant and tie that in first and then move towards the middle, using the plant’s own branches to build up the web and – in the case of ‘Constance Spry’ and ‘Henri Martin’ – create a fantastic height, one layer domed and attached to the one below. Without any sign of a flower, this looks magnificent as soon as it’s complete, and in a couple of months, each stem, curved almost to ground level, will flower abundantly.

That leaves just the contained, well behaved, less prolific varieties (‘Petite de Hollande’, ‘Madame Knorr’, ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’, ( syn. Rosa x centifolia ‘Cristata’) and those that produce branches too stiff to bend (‘Felicia’ and the newish David Austin rose, ‘William Shakespeare 2000’). These are pruned hard, then each bush is attached to a single stake, cut to about the height of the pruned bush and attached by twine. Without the stake, even these will topple under the weight of their summer growth.

For those who live in the North, where some roses are yet to leaf, you could get bending now. If your roses are already too advanced for this year, come and see how it’s all done at Sissinghurst.

Sissinghurst opens this coming weekend

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle/

These are links to my Facebook page for 4 albums of photographs I took at Sissinghurst in the summer (August) of 2012.

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.429736573731961.98604.100000868662665&type=1&l=488caa5922

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.429739390398346.98606.100000868662665&type=1&l=506ff77784

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.429741287064823.98607.100000868662665&type=1&l=8ee4a3762b

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.429743557064596.98609.100000868662665&type=1&l=e93057e448

Late summer at Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst, now owned by the National Trust, the former home and exceptional gardens of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson

From ‘The Gardens of England and Ireland’ by Patrick Taylor

The garden at Sissinghurst, famous as it is, has become for many people more an idea, a myth, than reality. Yet to visit the garden (especially when it is not overrun with visitors) remains a thrilling pleasure. The strength of the design, the beauty of the planting and the standards of practical gardening are all marvelous. It is true and regrettable that the unconventional life of the garden’s makers, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, is of more allure to some visitors than the beauty of the place. But none of this should draw attention from the Nicolsons’ most remarkable achievement – the creation of a great garden

Birth of a Garden

They bought Sissinghurst in 1930 when it was a decaying if romantic ruin – ‘big, broken down and sodden”, as Harold Nicolson recorded in his diary. One of the earliest photographs of Sissinghurst, taken in March 1931, shows Vita Sackville -West digging a new border by the castle tower – long before they were able to live in the crumbling buildings. They were not novices, for they had already made (with the help of Sir Edward Lutyens) an excellent garden at their previous house, Long Barn, also in Kent, and were admirers of such gardeners as Lawrence Johnson at Hidcote Manor, Heather Muir at Kiftsgate Court and William Robinson at Gravetye Manor. At Sissinghurst they used the scattered buildings and old walls as the atmospheric framework for a garden of compartments embellished with an ever-growing collection of plants.

Vita Sackville-West was an experimenter – rediscovering the beauty of old shrub roses, for example, but also willing to experiment with a cheap packet of mixed annual seeds from Woolworths (a failure, as she candidly confessed in her journal). Her lively and discerning quest was recorded in a series of articles, “In Your Garden”, which she wrote for The Observer. They remain among the most attractive and valuable garden journalism ever written.

The excitement of the garden comes from he contrasting identity of the planted enclosures separated by hedges of high walls ad linked by paths, vistas or passages. In their harmonious progression the eye is often drawn by an eye-catcher, a distant gate or a fine plant; the strong framework is often blurred by planting and brilliant colour schemes soothed by an intervening cool corridor or mesmerising rondel of yew. The beauty of the famous White Garden comes not from its colour scheme (best at night when public visitors cannot see it) but from the serene pattern of he box hedge parterre which has all the austere and harmonious simplicity of some Islamic patio.

The Cottage Garden, below the building where Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West had their bedrooms, is only a cottage garden by name for it deploys flamboyant red, oranges and yellows chosen with aristocratic panache. Here, as almost everywhere in the garden, the planting has been altered since their time, but the spirit of the place is honoured. Newly fashionable grasses are to be seen but it is interesting to note that dahlias, a favourite of Harold Nicolson’s, were used in the original scheme at a time when smart taste generally thought them vulgar. He and Vita Sackville-West are often thought of as snobs. In some ways, they were, but not in gardening. There is an independence of mind in what they did where a snob would be looking over his shoulder.

Zestful Spirit

Much has been written of Sissinghurst and its owners but nothing can quite compare the visitor for the impact of the garden itself. Although Vita Sackville-West dies in 1962 and Harold Nicolson in 1968, their garden remains fresh and original. It is this that is perhaps the greatest testimonial to their gardening skills; they devised a style of gardening which allows change while preserving its essence. The admirable team of National Trust gardeners who now care for it so meticulously have added al sorts of plants unknown to Vita Sackville-West but have maintained her irrepressibly zestful spirit.

Gardens have become famous for all sorts of reasons, not all of them worthy. In the end , it is hard to imagine any visitor to Sissinghurst failing to be moved by the beauty of the place.

Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens are owned by the National Trust and can be found at Sissinghurst, Near Cranbrook in Kent. 

These pictures were taken last August (2012). Looking through them today, and appreciating the very late start to the growing season we have had this year, many of the plants shown in flower will be blooming in our September gardens now. Now if I can only find my photographs from Great Dixter… 

The White Garden, Sissinghurst

The White Garden, Sissinghurst

Spurred on by the BBC4 series starting tonight – and having read Adam Nicolson’s book “Sissinghurst – An Unfinished History” last summer, it seems a good time to look through the photographs taken on a rather damp early August day last year. For a few brief minutes I had the garden all to myself. Heaven.

Pruning, care and maintenance plan for your roses, starring Mottisfont Abbey

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There have been some changes at Mottisfont in Hampshire. A new garden has been created and there is a new-ish visitor centre. But these notes and images are more about the practicalities of growing Old Roses, with detail from winter and spring. For those wishing to delve deeper into the art and science of rose care, there are similar tours through Sissinghurst for example – just use the search bar for further articles. I’ll take the liberty of reposting a piece from June 2018 when I visited with a good friend, with memories of a very happy day, shopping and lunching in Stockbridge, exploring Mottisfont and just scraping an hour at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens before returning home, exhausted!

The beautiful collection of Old Roses at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire – displayed in three separate walled gardens, each with its own distinct character and altogether showcasing several hundred Old Roses varieties with a range of complimentary plants. And the fragrance! Be still my beating heart!

Actually, there is a new garden there, that I have only seen mid-construction when I visited in June 2018. These photos are from 2014/15, winter/summer though there are many many more galleries of images on my website featuring these glorious gardens, in successive years. I had a memorable visit last June with a friend and was introduced to the delights of the nearby town of Stockbridge, which I heartily recommend. The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are about half an hour away, next to Pococks Rose nursery, so don’t spend too long over refreshments.

I’m reposting this to coincide with a workshop I’m hosting, a Celebration of Roses, today at Petersham Nurseries. Look out too for past stories from David Austin’s gardens near Telford, and RHS Wisely, Kew Gardens, the Savill Garden, Sissinghurst and across the Nurseries too, planted and potted, in the Cutting Garden and House Gardens too – opening for charity on 14th July if memory serves me well.

I hope to get to a few new rose gardens, well new to me, so will keep you posted as we head into peak rose season.

These pruning notes were originally published in February 2015 and the work of renovation and pruning is a job to be done between January and the end of March as a preference.

DSCF5460A preamble really to the subject matter today, introducing some elements of pruning and training Old Roses, climbing and rambling roses – eventually expanding later into an early spring maintenance regime so that your roses give their absolute best this summer and in the years to follow.

I’ve visited these impressive gardens both in winter and at their zenith in June and I thought it would be useful to look at some of the specimens to see how they have been cared for – contrasting them bare of leaf and flower – and see them too in their glorious summer garb.

69624_513893848649566_1894123755_nBuff Beauty here at the entrance to the Walled Garden complex at Mottisfont Abbey. Before and After, as it were!

DSCF6149I’m preparing a workshop for a little later this month on seasonal rose maintenance, pruning, planting and getting the best out of existing roses and new purchases alike. I’m hopeful that some of these photos will make a valuable contribution to this event, illustrating some of the pruning and training techniques we can apply now for a good show in the summer.

The roses in this collection are Old Roses, an inheritance from Graham Stuart Thomas who created the garden and I will be coming back to other types of roses we might have in our gardens later on – hybrid teas and floribundas for example and not forgetting the English Roses from David Austin. For the moment let us take a tour around the gardens at Mottisfont, winter and summer, to illustrate how they tend to their charges.

417634_513893691982915_309756335_nDSCF5641Constance Spry (above)  – trained along the ‘horizontal’ to maximise flowering – and here with Adelaide D’Orleans cascading from the pergola.

DSCF5645535550_513893358649615_1846004094_n421497_513893655316252_749795579_nDSCF5930Crepuscule, first in twig and then in flower above another bench on a warm sheltered wall.

All plants want to go up, towards the light (well, most in our garden repertoire) and to do so with the least effort. The top bud on any stem or branch will be the leader, top dog and commander-in-chief and while there may be many, many dormant buds along the whole length of the stem, they are quite firmly told to stay dormant. Apical dominance is the thing, with hormones preventing these dormant buds from bursting into life, leaf and flower.

That is, as long as the stem is growing vertically, pretty much straight up and the top bud is left in charge. As soon as that very same stem is trained to grow at an angle, all the way to being grown horizontally – or if the top bud is decapitated – or both – then the whole balance of power changes.

Dormant buds can spring to life, side branches emerge, flowering buds are ultimately created and spindly growth becomes denser with much more flower to show for itself – and much of that flowering going on at an accessible distance from the ground. New growth can be encouraged by judicious pruning and training – even roses in their twilight years.

Pulling long stems down to train along horizontal wires might not always be possible – there may not be the room on a section of wall or fence, or you are furnishing a pillar, post or arch. In this instance, a lazy spiral or serpentine ‘S’ is what you are looking to achieve. The sap slows and dormant buds are given a chance to work for you. Older wood, particularly on climbing roses, can be very stiff and difficult to manipulate, so getting the plan in place early, while the stems are more pliable, is key.

DSCF4469DSCF5279These are matched posts clothed in The Pilgrim, flowering from ankle to about 8′ where the stems are twined around the post in a double helix, the same below.

DSCF4470DSCF4504The posts above feature the ramblers Bleu Magente and Debutante. You can easily see how the pliable young growth has been wrapped around the uprights.

A quick diversion here to touch upon the differences between rambling roses and climbing roses. One key difference lies in the size and grouping of the flowers (there are other differences). With climbing roses, they are generally typified by large blooms held singly or in small groups. This contrasts with the ramblers, where the flowers are smaller and held in great swags and much larger clusters. Rambler roses have a limited colour palette – white, cream, pale pinks and blushes with just a very few stronger tones – purples and reds come to mind. Every colour (bar the elusive blue) will crop up in one climbing rose or another.

Ramblers tend to flower just the once, in one glorious extravaganza, putting all their effort into one show in June or early July. You will look forward to it and remember it for the next 11 months! There are some repeat flowering ramblers, just a few, and these are well worth seeking out.

Climbing roses tend to flower more than once (though not all) and this may be in successive flushes throughout the summer, or once in summer and again in the autumn, or perhaps continually (but not extravagantly) right the way through the season. The flowers are usually much larger than their rambler equivalents and many are sports of hybrid teas or floribundas. Many are richly fragrant.

Rambling roses flower, the once only types, on the new growth they put out the year before, and this growth tends to be wiry, flexible and with trademark rambler backward facing thorns (prickles technically) which they use to clamber through trees and anchor themselves securely as they grow. Individually, each flower may lack a strong perfume, but massed flowers can prove superbly fragrant.

The Garland, below, I’ve not seen in flower, but you can imagine the effect of these millions of buds fully open…

DSCF5357DSCF5954Lykkefund (above) is a great mass of flower almost 4.5m tall and through, with an extravagant display of creamy, scented double flowers.

555072_513893791982905_971949665_nI forget the name of this rambler, I think it might be a young specimen of The Garland again, but you can see the careful treatment of fanning out these wiry stems across the wall surface. Older, less vigorous stems will have been removed right from the base, and these younger stems tied in along parallel wires.

By contrast, Crimson Glory – a climbing sport of the hybrid tea, has larger flowers held singly but again the stems are trained more or less horizontally. These main arteries will be a permanent (more or less) feature of the mature plant, with younger side branches coming off from them cut back each year to promote flowering along their length.

DSCF4525Crimson Glory (above left) and Buff Beauty (above right)

and in flower…

DSCF5293DSCF6055This is the rambler, Laure Davoust, being trained over an arch –

– Smaller ramblers such as these are ideal since their stems are pliable and easy to train – climbers can be used but as the stems are stiffer, training has to be done when the stems are younger and more easily bent to your will. Here the stems form a sinuous ‘S’ rather than heading straight up to the top of the structure.

One thing to bear in mind when choosing a rose for an arch, and particularly a rambler – many are immensely vigorous and ultimately very large plants. Wedding Day can reach 9m and the original Kiftsgate, 24m x 15m. Not one for an arch such as this! Match the vigour of the your rose with an appropriate support – give larger ramblers free reign if possible, allowing them their natural grace and habit – rather than continually having to straight-jacket them to keep them in bounds.

DSCF5496Training stems to the horizontal to promote flowering can also be used on some shrub roses – this is the Bourbon/Hybrid Perpetual (depending on where you look) Mme Isaac Pereire, a rose of fabulous colour and scent, where the long stems grown last year are pegged down to the ground at their tip in the spring. Flowers form all along the length of this stem, pulled low and under tension.  Many forms of training – into domes for example – maximise this trait.

The Long Border - many early Teas
The Long Border – many early Teas
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and in winter…
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and back to summer….

The long border in the outer court, photographs separated by just a few months… what a difference! The climbing rose (below) Mme Caroline Testout.

Rambling Rector, below

DSCF4515DSCF4505DSCF4510Substantial supports are needed for larger and more numerous specimens. These are almost entirely hidden at the height of summer but there are no shortcuts!

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Paul's Single White
Paul’s Single White

 

un-named, as yet
Seven Sister, Rosa platyphylla

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Adelaide d'Orleans
Adelaide d’Orleans

The Old Shrub roses  – the gallicas, damasks, portlands, albas, bourbons, hybrid musks and more are a great feature of the gardens of course and these too are pruned, to a greater or lesser degree – actually a lesser degree – and I’ll come to how we look at these another time. Dead, diseased and crossing/rubbing stems are always removed and some height may be reduced, with some shaping of the shrub – but these are shrub roses and the short back and sides you might associate with hybrid teas has no place in their care and maintenance.

I spent a day with Michael Marriott from David Austin roses at their nursery and gardens in Albrighton looking at pruning of these Old Roses – their own creations too – and I’ll look out the photographs I took during the course. For the moment, they elude me!

Before I get to a gallery of some of the roses from the gardens at Mottisfont that are also in the collection at Petersham Nurseries, one that I’ve put together this year, I thought the following article by Charles Quest-Ritson, writing in the Telegraph in 2009, gives a thoughful introduction to these rose gardens and puts them in context.

Graham Stuart Thomas and the Mottisfont old roses

Mottisfont Abbey, celebrated for its old roses, is plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas’s masterpiece.

Charles Quest-Ritson    14 Jul 2009

Graham Stuart Thomas was born on April 3, 1909 and all this year the National Trust has been celebrating the centenary of his birth with a series of events that pay tribute to the man who dominated the world of English gardening in the second half of the 20th century. Plantsman, nurseryman, writer and eventually Grand Old Man of British horticulture, Thomas is usually remembered for two achievements above all others. The first is his work for the National Trust, where he was responsible for more than 100 gardens in England, Wales and Ireland – restoring, re-making and, above all, turning them into viable tourist destinations. Thomas is the man who revived Hidcote Manor, rationalised Sissinghurst Castle, embellished Mount Stewart (in Northern Ireland) and restored Stourhead to its 18th-century splendour. His brief was to maximise enjoyment but minimise expenditure – not a bad principle on which to run your own garden.

Thomas is also remembered for his work with old garden roses. It was while he worked as a nurseryman in Surrey that he was first smitten by the beauty of the old roses – Gallicas and Damasks like ‘Belle de Crecy’ and ‘Mme Hardy’ – that had fallen from fashion because they flower only once. And he soon saw their commercial potential. The catalogues he produced for Sunningdale Nurseries in the 1960s presented old roses as a quality product, much more rewarding than vulgar Hybrid Teas and flashy Floribundas. Thomas had collected them from all over the world, trialled them and selected the best for British conditions. Then he wrote about them: his book The Old Shrub Roses, first published in 1955, has proved one of the most popular of all gardening books, constantly reprinted and updated.

When Thomas wanted to retire as a nurseryman, he looked for a site to preserve his collection of old roses. At first, they were parked (with very little in the way of artistry), in the garden of the Royal National Rose Society. But in 1971 the opportunity came to create a new garden at Mottisfont Abbey, the National Trust’s property in Hampshire whose tenant had just relinquished possession of a handsome walled kitchen garden.

Thomas knew how the National Trust worked and soon had permission to assemble all his roses in a new formal garden that he designed within the four-square, old brick walls. It was to be a celebration of the beauty of old roses, laid out so that visitors could study and compare the different varieties, but interplanted with herbaceous plants that would show them off in mixed plantings. The garden opened for the first time in 1974 and – though it is open from March to October – now attracts over 150,000 visitors a year, of which nearly 60,000 come during the high season of June alone.

Mottisfont Abbey’s garden is Graham Thomas’s masterpiece. It brings together his strong sense of design, his immense knowledge of plants, his love of roses and his genius for combining plants in attractive colour combinations. On the walls are old Noisettes and Climbing Tea roses, plus a few of the best Wichurana and Multiflora Ramblers. In the beds beneath them are Hybrid Perpetuals, China roses, Scots roses, a few Rugosa hybrids and Bourbon roses. More structure comes from the box edging, occasional pieces of trellis-work and tall, clipped yews.

Mottisfont is the best garden in Britain to study not just the way plants can be put together but also to learn about the roses themselves. With so much to look at and compare, you get your eye in fairly quickly. You notice how large the flowers of old Gallica roses are – sometimes as much as 6 in across – and how strong and sweet are their scents. The Tea roses, by contrast, smell exactly as their name suggests, of fresh China tea-leaves, while the Musk roses are free with the fragrance of – well – musk.

The Damask roses have soft grey-green leaves to complement their flowers in shades of pink or white. Moss roses have a hard, green outcropping all over their sepals and stems – it looks like moss, but it is sticky when you touch it and smells very strongly of pine-resin. Some of the old roses are striped, with slashes of colour across the flowers or – in a few cases – tricked out with a white edging to the petals. Others are thornless, and you wonder why nurserymen have not bred this valuable characteristic into more modem roses. Mottisfont provokes such reflections; no other English rose-garden offers such a stimulus to ponder and dream.

In the late 1980s, the opportunity arose to extend the garden into an adjoining area, triangular in shape but enclosed by walls of the same mellow brick. More old roses were now streaming into England from the great collections at Sangerhausen in Germany and L’Hay-les-Roses in France, and the new rose garden – though merging completely with the first – gave Thomas the opportunity to display the best of them. Here, too, the roses are interplanted with herbaceous plants. In one corner lies a wooden shelter, where Thomas would sit and hold court on hot days in June until only a few years before his death in 2003. Visitors would bring him roses to identify and ask him questions on cultivation – though roses of every sort are among the easiest of all plants to grow. His precise, rather schoolmasterly voice dispensed advice and encouragement with all the charm and authority that were the hallmarks of his professional career. It is not a bad place to sit today, shaded from the sun, with the late-flowering, ‘Sander’s White Rambler’ bowered around you and the sweet scent of roses assailing your nostrils, gazing out at the sea of opulent shapes and soft, subtle colours. Only one anomaly sticks out – a tall rose on the far side of the enclosure in very bright yellow. This turns out to be ‘Graham Thomas,’ the English rose dedicated to him by his great friend David Austin. It is planted here as a tribute to the man who re-invented old roses as top-value garden plants and gave us, at Mottisfont, the most beautiful rose-garden in Britain.

  • Mottisfont Abbey, Mottisfont, nr Romsey, Hampshire SO51 0LP 01794 340757.
  • Charles Quest-Ritson is editor of The NIS Encyclopaedia of Roses.

Crepuscule

A gallery featuring just some of the Old Roses at Mottisfont – available at Petersham Nurseries (though with limited stock).

Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Gruss an Aachen
Gruss an Aachen
Blanc double de Coubert
Blanc double de Coubert
Blanc double de Coubert
Blanc double de Coubert
Roseraie de 'Hay
Roseraie de ‘Hay
Crepuscule
Crepuscule
Ghislaine de Feligonde
Ghislaine de Feligonde
Rosa Mundi
Rosa Mundi
Hugh Dickson
Hugh Dickson
Hugh Dickson
Hugh Dickson
Clg Souvenr de la Malmaison
Clg Souvenr de la Malmaison
Reine des Violettes
Reine des Violettes
Varigata di Bologna
Varigata di Bologna
Madame Isaac Pereire
Madame Isaac Pereire
Lady Hillingdon Clg
Lady Hillingdon Clg
Perle d'or
Perle d’or
Perle d'Or
Perle d’Or

A few scribblings on creating a White Garden

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Creating a White Garden

Straight out of the block, I’m talking about green. And grey, silver, and variegation. We’ll get to white but a few thoughts first.

‘Green is the backdrop to the garden but in its range of shades and textures, green has much more to offer as any foreground interest. Grey dims, white brightens and greens, greys and white together will outlast the flash from coloured petals.’ Mary Keen

When we talk about creating a White Garden, strictly speaking, we mean a green, white, and grey garden and not just white. Green foliage, and variegated, silver and pewter, with white flowers and pale colours that blend but are not strictly pure white, a balance of structure and ephemeral planting, using trees, shrubs, perennials, biennials and annuals, spring and autumn bulbs, a whole smorgasbord of horticulture treats

Our love affair starts with Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Large scale gardening, with the Victorians, allowed for restricted palette and colour-themed-borders, in distinct and separate areas.

But the romance associated with the White Garden began in the 1930s when Harold and Vita bought the run-down estate and bore fruit when the White Garden was laid out in 1950.

Of Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens

While this is naturally a garden to be enjoyed during the daytime, I think the real joy would be to see it, as visitors never get the opportunity, at dusk and later even.

These cool and pale shades will be the last to diminish in the gloaming, with ghostly heads and a tumble of shapes reluctant to let go of the failing light. Vita Sackville West worked, slept and cooked in three separate buildings, so would have had the pleasure of walking these paths in the late evening, enjoying the silhouettes and highlights, and fragrance too. Who do I have to talk to, for that privilege?

Of course, in sunshine, strong sunshine, much of the effect could be bleached out, which is why the bones of this garden, and a substantial punch of green in our gardens, if we are using such a restrictive colour palette, will provide the cool and the calm under a white sun. The balance of green to colour should however never be dull.

One trick is to photograph your garden, or a stretch of border, in black and white. A preponderance of small oval leaves will look featureless, and with no focus or contrast. Green-on-green compositions rely on leaf shape, texture, varying sizes, spikes and spires to relieve the sheep-like qualities of some shrubs, some architecture and bold planting, even in a small space. Small gardens do not have to have just small plants.

Fatsia

Large-leaved Fatsia japonica, deeply glossy, or Melianthus major (honey spurge), suggest something more tropical. Fennel, threaded through a border is airy but architectural, while Cynara and Onopordium, Angelica are truly architectural.

Contrast with clipped Ilex crenata (a welcome relief from the tribulations of box-hedge owners and the irresistible rise of the box leaf caterpillar), or neat conifers, broad-leaved hostas, green is a broad church. A well-constructed border wouldn’t look dull, even in B&W.

Grey foliage needs careful handling, as it is paradoxically, a strong and bright feature in any planting, despite being well, grey. Or silver. Where the planting is in shade, the effect is less strong, and the detail of the texture and pattern of foliage, and any variegation, is toned down but much more evident than in full sun. Artemesia, Brunnera, Lamium, Astelia, these solid pewters and metallic sheens, are welcome in a cooler position. Varigated plants work well in shadier spots, and while we are talking about white flowers, note that blue is often cleaner and clearer in shade, taking on a purplish tone in strong sunshine.

Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost

Green foliage and white flowers are particularly welcome in shadier spaces, though from my notes, you will see that there are far more white flowers to choose that prefer a well-lit and sunny position to the shadier corners of our gardens.

White flowers become luminous near nightfall, so foxgloves and Japanese Anemones, roses, Clematis, white-flowering shrubs such as Choisya, Olearia, Acanthus, Jasmines and Nicotianas will be the last to go to bed. And let’s not ignore evening scent. Another chapter altogether.

Returning to Sissinghurst Castle –

“I am trying to make a grey, green and white garden’ wrote Vita in one of her gardening articles for the Observer in January 1950. The idea transported her readers, and the garden itself prompted countless imitations. Lilium regale, white delphiniums, irises, eremurus, galtonias, and Onorpordium thistles rising above cushions of artemesias and hosta; a weeping silver pear (the original fell over in the storm of October 1987; this is a replacement), Pyrus salificolia pendula sheltering the lead statue of a virgin; an ironwork bower covered in the white rambler rose, R mulliganii, and the Priest’s House in Rosa Mme Alfred Carriere and R cooperii. The colours span every tint and tone, with each plant sited for maximum impact of shape, height and leaf size.

‘”It may be a terrible failure,“ added Vita with her customary modesty. “All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across the pale garden next summer in the twilight, that I am now planting under the first flakes of snow.”

‘Whether or not it is twilight,’ writes Stephen Lacey in his book Gardens of the National Trust, ‘I recommend this enclosure as your departing image : a sorbet after the feast of colour.’

The mid-summer impact of the white garden, tightly enclosed by tall yew hedging and brickwork of the Priest’s House, with narrow gaps to allow the visitor in from either the meadow or adjoining garden, the billows of flower and foliage, corseted in a frame of knee-high, clipped and deeply green box hedging, is so utterly romantic. Roses, Jasmine, Hydrangea (Annabelle), Cosmos and I think Antirrhinums, ghostly Eryngium, daisy heads of Echinacea, the goose-necked Lysimachia, Nigella, more spires and pillows of Campanula, spires of Veronicastrum, late-summer Anemones, Physostegia, grasses, Nicotiana, Peonies … there is a surge of growth, which would be unruly save for the strong bones of the garden, and the boundaries are fully clothed with pergolas and pillars adding height within the parterre of formal hedging.

I did draft three planting plans – green/green, green/white and silver/white with something for pretty much all of the year and if I can locate them despite all my lockdown-led clearing out and tidying up, I’ll come back and add them here. Scented winter shrubs, evergreens with glossy leaves – and on the subject of structure, aim for at least 30% of the planting to be evergreen, keeping its foliage all through the year. This will give you something to look at in mid-winter while the perennials shut down, and before the Spring bulbs get going.

Structure, deciduous shrubs (Lilac, Philadelphus), regular returnees being the perennials, bulbs, and then annual and biennial fillers such as Foxgloves, Love in a Mist, Cosmos, more-tender Fuchsias, annual Phlox, Antirrhinum (snapdragons) will keep the show going. There are lists at the end of this piece.

Trachelospermum

Clothing the boundaries in light-reflecting Ivy (Gloire de Marengo is one of my favourites), Honeysuckle, Jasmine (J officinale and Trachelopspermum jasminoides), and Roses in sun, in shadier spots the climbing Hydrangea anomala petiolaris and the similar but-not-the same Schizophragma integrifolia, and Clematis can do well in a cooler spot too.

Adding height within the border with obelisks and pillars helps break up the view, interrupting the eye, obscuring and revealing, providing focal points and being just plain useful for growing more climbers and clamberers in your garden. Shrubs too, are a useful frame for a not-too rampant Clematis and there is a Clematis willing to flower pretty much every month of the year. Let’s not forget Wisteria …

Roses, as anyone who has ever met me before, or read my blog, are a crucial element of my idea of a good garden. My garden is north facing, so my choices are limited – I have the rambler Goldfinch, Mme Alfred Carriere, and Aimee Vibert or Bouquet de La Marriage, and grow a standard Desdemona in a pot at the front. For anywhere less shaded with at least the possibility of six hours of sunshine, and a rich soil, or large enough container and some careful management, white roses come in all shapes, hues and sizes.

Rambler roses, like R mulliganii at Sissinghurst Castle, Paul’s Himalayan Musk or vigorous beauties like Kiftsgate, The Garland, Bobbie James, Rambling Rector and Wedding Day, are one-month wonders. Absolutely spectacular if given full reign, and something you would not want to be on holiday for, to miss it in full spate. Some are earlier than others, some later, like Aimee Vibert (Bouquet de la Marriage), so if you have room for more than one, you could have a near two month show, and many have a fine show of rose hips.

Rosa filipes Kiftsgate

But they are big, 6-10m, they need a lot of room.

Happily David Austin set his mind to it and bred the more petite rambler, Snowgoose, which has long trails of neat white pompom flowers on a plant not much more than 3-4m. Lady of the Lake is pale, but not white, but might be fitted into a scheme if there are pinkish nuances.

Snowgoose

Climbing roses offer more scope, being variations on shrub roses, sports, bred with floribundas and hybrid teas and come in a bewildering number of forms and colours.

Rose, Madame Alfred Carriere

We’ve mentioned Mme Alfred Carriere, a Noisette climber with great scent and a second, strong flush of flowers later in the summer. Creamy white, with flashes of pink shell and peach, it is a delight.

Iceberg is a star performer and David Austin have used it extensively in their rose breeding process for its health, vitality and near-constant flowering. It has little or no scent, but can be a beautiful specimen. The only rose I believe in the garden of the American Ambassador in Regents Park, since it is so floriferous.

Of the David Austin roses, Claire Austin is the best white climber, or large shrub, with primrose yellow buds opening to pure white. Wollerton Old Hall pales from a rich cream, even apricot, to ivory with a strong fragrance of myrrh, like Sweet Cecily, aniseed. The Generous Gardener starts a soft pink before paling to a softer blush, with good perfume and reliable habit.

Wollerton Old Hall (2011)

Shrub roses, again from David Austin, include the fragrant sport of The Mayflower, Susan Williams-Ellis, with glaucous leaves and icy white small pompom flowers. Tranquility, which is neater, more classically shaped. Winchester Cathedral, another sport, of Mary Rose, though you do occasionally get a flash of its parent, with pink blotches and splashes against the white.

Kew Gardens is a single-flower with masses of blooms on great hydrangea-like heads. Immensely healthy, repeat-flowering, and perfect for pollinators. An under used and under rated rose, this one.

For a blush of primrose, Tottering-by-Gently, is pretty much identical to Kew Gardens, but with lemon, later paling to cream. Imogen has a blush of primrose too and Vanessa Bell. Gentle Hermione pales to a blush of pink, Desdemona has a touch of apricot, pearl and cream.

Old Shrub roses offer up a cornucopia of white flowering plants, mostly flowering just once in mid-summer, but graceful shrubs the rest of the season, and an opportunity to climb something through them when they are not in flower. Mme Hardy is a large shrub best described as white lace and emeralds, for the green eye at the centre of the flower; The rugosa rose, Blanc Double de Coubert is robust, good in shade, perfumed and strong; Little White Pet is a diminutive, fragrant ground cover roses; Boule de Neige is a tall white bundle of snowballs.

Boule de Neige

A visit to Mottisfont Abbey near Romsey in Hampshire, a National Trust property with a sizeable collection of Old Roses that is sure to inspire. As too, maybe a little later, would be a visit to Albrighton, near Telford, to see David Austin’s two-acre garden. There are plenty of stories in my blog cataloguing their gardens and rose collections, so please do have a virtual wander.

I’ve spent a lot of time on roses, but cover many of the more useful and interesting shrubs, perennials, climbers and annuals detailed in the plant lists I’ve written out. These are not writ in stone, but suggest longevity, interest at different times of year, with a focus on structure, varying the shape, size and texture of the plants, as well as the leaf colour and flower, fragrance and impact at different times of day.

With the hedgerows and river banks overflowing with cow parsley, elderflower and hawthorn, we might include some of their better behaved garden plants in to the mix – Ammi major and Orlaya, Sambucus and Crataegus. Foxgloves are about to do their thing, Japanese Anemones will be with us from high summer, Hydrangeas in all their myriad forms are a true delight from summer onwards.

Narcissus and Tulips started the white season off in March, Camassias and Alliums will take up the baton, Agapanthus sees us through the summer and Dahlias create a blinding finish to the year (and who can resists Café au Lait?)..

A restricted palette, as you can see, still leaves a wide, wide selection of plants to choose from, to use in your garden compositions. As with any garden project, the right plant in the right place is our every day mantra. True, you can amend local conditions a little – extra watering, mulching, improving drainage, elevating tree-crowns and shrub-skirts to give plants more room, but plants that like sun, like sun. Plants can tolerate some shade, and some absolutely must have it.

And have a longer look, please, through my blog, for another gallery on the White Garden plant choices, a huge gallery in fact, plus my visits to Kew, RHS Wisley, a glorious white garden at Loseley House near Guildford (above) spring immediately to mind last May and all my other garden visits. We might not be able to get there in person, but we can enjoy them virtually and make plans.

Some planting lists, pardon the handwriting …

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Explaining a little about fertilisers; What N:P:K means; the benefits of Organic Matter, mulches & green manure – and making your own compost & manure brews. Some steps towards Organic Gardening

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I had quite a few ideas about gardening that I believed wholeheartedly but quite without foundation – that is before I started my formal horticultural training. One of these truths was that there was no such thing as the over-use of fertilisers. A little more would surely provide extra benefit. Well, no, it turned out.

So I have put together some notes on the place of fertilisers in the garden, sorting out some of the jargon and explaining the technical bits on the back of the various bottles that struggle for a place on garden centre shelves and highlighting the use of my favourites. Also what the home gardener can do and putting into the spotlight the benefits of organic matter, mulching, green manures, and home made fertiliser teas.

It’s a text dense piece, so settle down with a cup of (preferably not manure) tea and read on. Your soil will love you back as in turn will your plants.

Armchair touring

And while I am here, if you are going stir crazy in these difficult times, I’ve scheduled timely posts throughout April, with tours from years’ past at Kew Gardens and RHS Wisley, Pashley Manor in Kent, Great Dixter and more, so you can get out and about from the safety and comfort of your armchair. Further investigation of past posts will take you on a journey through many more gardens across Britain and a few treats abroad. Might help pass the time, or provide a temporary break from life’s commitments.

Fertilisers, mulches, manures and teas

We may not have a plot the size of Sissinghurst (above) but we may have one of the 15 million gardens in the UK, or a piece of an allotment – or a single solitary pot. We may however, dream. Then just as we want to get started – confusion strikes. We can all be bamboozled by the myriad bottles, tubs and packets of fertilisers on sale – small print upon even smaller print – and wonder whether we are doing our plants, or the wider environment much good by using them.

Fear not, with a little chemistry, biology, soil science, composting and home brewing – we can really make a difference to the living soil, creating happier plants and healthier, tastier crops. Understand a little about your soil and what your plants need. Embrace these steps towards organic gardening in your own piece of Eden.

The starting point for any of this is the headline – ‘Consider Your Soil’ – what it is, what it is made up of, why it is alive and how to care for it. I will talk use and benefits of Organic Matter and I’ll use the abbreviation OM throughout these notes, where I remember.

A background note to tall of this –  the level of demand we might be placing on the soil depending on what we are growing and how intensively. This falls more or less down the line between the ornamental flower/shrub garden and the market garden, growing fruit and vegetables throughout the year.

Specifically relating to fertilisers, soil improvers and amendments, we shall look at the difference between organic and chemical (non-organic) fertilisers, straight fertilisers, compound fertilisers, what plant invigorators are and more. Mycorrhizal fungi will come into the conversation too.

Importantly, we shall look at the major macronutrients that all plants need, and some of the micronutrients. What they are, what plants need them for and what deficiencies look like. Issues relating to time of release of different nutrients in different forms, the importance of water and watering, acidity and alkalinity (pH), the concentration of different formulas and the effect of your soil type. Why having too much of one can lead to a shortage of something else and why too much is never a good thing. Specific mention is made on growing in containers too, as these can present particular issues for all manner of ornamental and fruit/vegetable growing needs.

In addition to the organic and inorganic fertilisers that you can buy (and having a greater understanding of what all of the small print on the back of these packets and bottles actually now means) we shall cover home-made fertilisers and soil improvers, including compost tea, manure teas and comfrey tea, amongst others. This would naturally lead us neatly on to the next natural topic which is focused on composting at home, including hot and cold methods, bokashi, wormeries and more – but that is for another time.

First off, we’ll look at the different nutrients that your plants need – and need more of in different soils or circumstances. A lot of what I discuss will refer to these chemical elements so it is best to have a handle of them, what they are called, what they do, and what deficiencies may look like – and what we can do to put them back into the ground. Organic matter you will see comes around time and time again but we will get back to the soil after a little chemistry lesson….

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UNDERSTANDING NITROGEN

One of the major macronutrients – there are six in total, N, P and K being top flight, Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. The second tier are Ca, Mg and S – Calcium, Magnesium and Sulphur. There are a whole host of micronutrients required in tiny amounts.

Nitrogen is very important!

  • Associated with leaf and stem growth
  • in every protein in plants; helps in defence against disease and insects
  • part of the chlorophyll molecule and therefore photosynthesis

It is a very common element – almost 80% of our atmosphere is composed of nitrogen but this cannot be used by plants.

Nitrogen may enter the soil through rainfall, plant residues, animal manures. It needs to be fixed or converted so that the plants can use it. Biological processes, where microbes break down organic matter, turn it into the kind of Nitrogen that plants can use. Rhizobia bacteria in the root nodules of peas, beans and clover for example, can fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil into Nitrogen again for the plant to use. N

Chemical processes involve ammonia and the Haber process which made inorganic nitrogen fertilisers available cheaply for the first time in the early 20th Century and in part took agriculture – and gardening – away from more sustainable methods using animal manures and green manures.

Nitrogen is very water soluble therefore as a liquid fertiliser it can be very quick acting. If it is being supplied in compounds which are not soluble in water, it will need microbial activity to break it down and is therefore slow.

Use it in spring and over the growing season, or as a boost if deficiencies are showing – and then use a soluble feed.

Plants can’t discriminate between organic and inorganic nitrogen but too much will hurt the plant, burning the leaves or roots.

Excessive use of Nitrogen fertiliser will result in too-fast growth, spindly growth, the cell structure will be weaker and more susceptible to disease and insect attack. Lush, leafy growth will be a haven for insect pests especially Aphids. Too much can also decrease carbohydrate production – so not at all good for potatoes and carrots.

Recommendations – Make compost if you can – as a fertiliser it is slow, biodiverse, builds soil, helps microbes and encourages different soil organisms.

Remember that pellets or granules are slower to work but containers may need nutrients fast, either as a foliar feed or as a drench.

Chemical ratios for the the macronutrients are mostly signified as a three part ration N:P:K, three numbers separated by a colon (:) in the small print. It signifies the balance of each chemical – and you can see if it is equal for each is something like 5:5:5, or skewed towards one or another – more Nitrogen in 12:5:5, more Potassium in 2:5:9 (I’m making these up but you see the pint.

Whatever fertiliser you use, keep the N:P:K ratio to less than 12 – i.e 12:5:5 or 2:5:3 or 6:2:0

Green manures can act as nitrogen-fixing ground cover – specifically to improve soil structure, add organic matter and nutrition. They are quick-growing, weed smothering and their deep roots aerate the soil

Sweet pea seedlings

UNDERSTANDING PHOSPHOROUS

The second of the major macronutrients – N – P – K

Why is it important?

  • associated most with storage and transfer of energy in the plants
  • promotes strong root growth
  • helps in flower and fruit production
  • helps in plant and fruit maturity
  • cell division and tissue growth
  • how plant use sugars and starches
  • essential in early stages of growth and during seed formation
  • high levels of Phosphorous decline as plant reaches maturity
  • most soils have enough phosphorous unless organic matter is low, or soils are acidic.

How is it made –

Rock phosphate is the raw material. It takes a long time to break down and become available to plants.

The KEY is how much is available to your plants immediately and how much further down the line.

Sources of organic phosphate include Bonemeal (6:9:0) – it may take 3-6 months for the initial part of the P to become available, though it may continue to contribute to the soil fertility for several years thereafter.

In manures and composts, the P element may take between 3-6 months to break down for the plants us (other benefits aside)

pH is an important factor – how acid or alkaline the soil is – higher alkalinity locks ups the available phosphorous in other elements, so even though the soil may contain the vital element, it is locked away and the plants can’t use it at all.

If plants are struggling, bonemeal is not really quick enough remedy.

Phosphorous deficiency

  • stunted plant
  • overly dark coloured leaves
  • when you plants are out in the cold, root development is obviously slow – with phosphorous deficiency, establishment and root growth is even slower.
  • bottom leaves turn yellow, oldest leaves first, symptoms working their way UP the plant
  • purple stems or purple veins
  • flowers and fruit delayed and small

Recommendations

  • Check pH – too acidic and P absorbed by Iron and Aluminium oxides
  • too alkaline, and P absorbed by Calcium carbonate – the element is there but locked away
  • If using straight fertilisers, allow and plan for up to six months ahead. Perhaps consider an autumn application for spring planting. An alternative way to think of this is to count backwards from planting, to work out when to apply a particular feed. Allow at least 4 weeks.
  • use a synthetic fertiliser in spring if needed
  • if in doubt, use a balanced organic/soluble fertiliser in the spring – look for 10:10:10 or 7:7:7

Bonemeal has Calcium and Nitrogen too – and also feeds the soil and its colony of microbes.

Chemical fertilisers feed the plant only.

Chemical fertilisers are often salts – can harm the plant and kill the life in the soil if over used.

Remember you can always dilute the feeds from the recommended dose, or split the application over the season with two or three smaller doses!

MBO_9406

UNDERSTANDING POTASSIUM

The third of the six macronutrients with the letter in the elementary table K. Requirements for this element range from high to very high, depending on species. Potassium comes from clay particles so as clay is broken down, potassium is released – therefore sandy soils often have issues.

Why is it important?

  • in plant protein production – affects the whole of the plant
  • flow of nutrients up and down the system
  • regulates water or turgor pressure in each cell
  • opening and closing of stomata cells and hence gas exchange
  • cellulose/cell wall structure
  • ensures plants grow to size and produce healthy yields – important in flower and fruit production
  • helps fight pest and disease by keeping cells under pressure – strong cells harder for diseases to penetrate.
  • builds strong membranes between cells – affects hardiness

Potassium deficiency

  • curled leaf tips
  • brown/yellow leaf edges, working into the centre of the leaf
  • yellow leaves start to brown from the leaf edges
  • chlorosis – yellowing between the veins
  • purple spots on the underside of leaves
  • blue, yellow or purple tints with brown blotches on upper surface
  • Leaves bronzed and rolled inwards and downwards
  • upper leaves usually look good, bottom leaves first affected then works way up the plant.
  • shortages more often in light sandy soils, as more readily washed away by winter rains than in clay soils, where clay particles hold on to it.

There are inorganic potassium sources

Potassium sulphate 0:0:80

Potassium nitrate 18:0:44

Monopotassium phosphate 0:62:34

NEVER use these – far to strong!

Organic sources of potassium include Greensand, dried banana peel, and potash (literally a Pot of Ash)

Burned hardwood ash – which provides micronutrients too.

If in doubt, use a balanced feed – tomato food is 2:5:3 generally

Recommendations

  • Don’t by chemical forms of potassium
  • Greensand, rockdust, ash, banana peel
  • Mix hardwood ash with water and add small quantities to the compost heap
  • Banana peels can be dried in the oven and crumbled (or use coffee grinder) – add one tablespoon to the planting hole of tomatoes, chillies, aubergines etc., Otherwise add peel under mulch by roses for example or add to the compost bin.
Tomato Indigo Rose

UNDERSTANDING CALCIUM

Generally, once you have been gardening intensively you may need to add more calcium. Plants need calcium in substantial quantities but have to watch soil pH – Calcium is the controlling element controlling soil pH so low levels of Ca in the soil will inhibit plant growth via increased acidity long before Ca becomes limiting as a nutrient in its own right.

Why is it important

  • carrier molecule – transports essential nutrients in and out of cells – carbohydrates, enzymes etc.,
  • strengthens cell walls
  • helps with the uptake of other nutrients including NPK from the soil – therefore necessary to make sure garden soil gives up its nutrients.

Calcium deficiency

  • stunted growth
  • young leaves distorted and yellow
  • inward curling of leaves
  • blossom end rot in tomatoes (especially in containers)
  • black heart in celery
  • cavity spot in carrots
  • bitter pit in apples

The problem is that is absorbed in water therefore you have to have regular levels of water. If there are periods of drought when the water dries up – and this is a common issue in containers, here the calcium take-up slows or stops. Therefore very important to maintain levels – and not over water either – too much or too little water affects how other nutrients are taken up from the soil.

A note that too much calcium will not change the soil pH – Calcium carbonate will change the soil pH.

Calcium is the building block of good fruit size and flavour therefore problems are common in containers where there are limited resources and where watering can leach out nutrients. Similarly in sandy soils, rain will leach out nutrients too fast.

Sources of Calcium

  • Calcium nitrate – fast acting NPK 2:5:3 and Ca:Mg: S 7:5:4 Liquid feed
  • Gypsum – may lower pH but will not raise it. Slow take up
  • Eggshells – slow – crush after baking to finer particles. Also contains N, P and trace minerals – Boron, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Sulfur, silicon and Zinc
  • Garden Lime – a mix release fertiliser, best added in winter. Contains Calcium carbonate, Calcium oxide, Calcium, Magnesium, Magnesium oxide and Magnesium carbonate. Will lower pH.
  • Bonemeal – 11% P, 2%N and 22% Calcium

Recommendations

  • Most soils have calcium – but as more claims are made on the soil, may need to supplement
  • Add compost and water regularly
  • Ca element doesn’t change pH – only Calcium carbonate will.
  • Lime raises pH
  • Containers may need more
  • Plan ahead generally and watch the watering, especially in containers.
Blueberry

LIME-HATING PLANTS / ACID_LOVING PLANTS – IRON (SEQUESTERED IRON)

Soils that contain a ready supply of calcium are not good for lime-hating plants such as Camellias, Azaleas and Rhododendrons, and in the productive garden, crops such as blueberries. You might use an ericaceous compost and a mulch of pine needles to maintain soil acidity. The problem is that while your soil may actually be fertile, many of the required minerals are captured and help by the calcium and these plants’ roots cannot access it. They starve of nutrition.

Using a fertiliser that contains Iron (Fe) will help the situation immeasurably. Sometimes referred to simply is Iron (such as Seaweed with Iron), or Sequestered Iron (sometimes as a wettable soluble powder), it knocks the required minerals free from their lock with the Calcium making them available to the lime-hating plant. In the first place, check your soil pH, plant appropriately to suit your soil – the right plant in the right place is always a good mantra to follow. That way you are not fighting nature in the first instance. But to help the situation along, if you need to fertiliser, or mulch, or plant in a growing medium, choose one to suit ericaceous plants.

Rhododendron Persil

UNDERSTANDING SULPHUR

95% of sulphur comes from Organic Matter – Compost!

Sulphur reacts with oxygen – soil bacteria change its form through mineralisation and your garden soil and the living ecosystem will do this for you – it is slow but ongoing.

It can be leached out of sandy soils, therefore another reason to maintain OM levels.

Deficiencies include yellow leaves and poor growth (again).

Three main sources of sulphur – organic matter, minerals and Acid Rain.

What it does –

  • aids root growth
  • helps with general growth and nutrition
  • helps plant take up other nutrients
  • involved in synthesis of amino acids, vitamins and proteins
  • legumes that fix Nitrogen need Sulphur in the process
  • adds heat and flavour to vegetables…

Recommendations

  • Compost and Organic Matter are Key
  • Even watering and good draining essential
  • Epsom salts provides a fast does – MgSO4 (Magnesium sulphate)
  • Gypsum provides a slow release
  • Containers once again can suffer shortages more rapidly.

UNDERSTANDING MAGNESIUM (Mg)

It can become unavailable in plants, if too much Potassium or NH4 is present. Like Potassium it is present in clay soils, so may be low in sandy soils.

What is it important?

  • required to give green leaves their colour
  • production of chlorophyll – 20% of Mg is found in chlorophyll – and correct functioning of photosynthesis
  • strength of cell walls
  • enzyme production
  • seed germination
  • helps plant take up nutrition
  • It is there in most soils, so no need to panic!

Deficiency

  • interveinal chlorosis, again
  • leaf curl
  • leaf tips curl upwards
  • purple or red colour to leaves
  • early leaf fall
  • stunted growth
  • death

You can see the duplication of symptoms here! It is important to look at the particular plant stress, what else you are doing or have done, to determine deficiency. Diaries and garden logs are important. But it is very hard for soils not to have enough Magnesium.

But if you have to add – MgO – garden lime is useful

Epsom Salts – fast acting magnesium oxide – 10% MG 22%S

Add when plants are flowering and setting fruit – they often need a boost and as before containers often need more.

It’s there again in compost and organic matter and this will help with a whole range of nutrients.

SALTS

Many fertilisers are actually salts and we know what happens if we spend too long in a bubble-bath – the tips of our fingers start to shrivel like prunes. Instead of water being absorbed by the skin, the higher concentration of chemical salts in the water actively draws water out of our skin – a reverse osmosis. It is exactly the same with plants – instead of the roots taking up water and nutrients from the soil, they begin to loose water and vital nutrients. If nothing else, over-use of chemicals or using them at the wrong time (in the growing cycle, in the year) will simply be a waste of money, not benefitting the plants or the soil.

This all brings us back to the soil and our options if we want to avoid chemical and inorganic feeds whilst still having a happy healthy garden and a productive vegetable plot.

Consider you soil

Your soil is a living, breathing thing, albeit that actually only a very small percentage is actually alive but this tiny proportion is an engine that feeds the entire thing we call soil.

Roughly made up of 45% minerals, 25% air and 25% water, and approximately 5% organic material, things which were once living and are now dead, sometimes a very long time dead. Of this 5%, 0.5% is actually still alive – all of the micro-flora and fauna, the earthworms (the heros of our soil) and bacteria and fungi and protozoa that do so much to manage the remaining 99.5% and which can make it a vital productive living soil.

I’m not going to look in detail at soil structure and texture, except to mention the difference between sandy soils and clay soils. Sandy soils are free-draining and hold less water, there is less OM (organic matter) as a whole and pans – thin hard layers in the soil profile – are common. Clay soils are characterised by being fertile, moist (though baking hard under a drying sun) and prone to water logging. Slow to warm up in the spring and more difficult to work. Surface crusts are common on bare soil and crusts can form through overworking at deeper levels.

If we think of sand particles as being the size of a baseball, then clay particles are the size of marbles – so you can already think of some the main differences in terms of these common traits as a factor of the main particle sizes.

By adding Organic Matter to both kinds of soils, miracles can be worked.

To recap, organic material was once alive – organic matter (OM) is what is left after the organic material has decomposed in humus, a stable organic component of the soil.

  • It can loosen and aerate clay soils
  • bind sandy soils together
  • improve nutrient and water holding capacity of sandy soils
  • makes clay soils easier to work
  • attracts a whole universe of micro-organisms – providing a varied habitat – for beneficial fungi, worms, bacteria and other creatures into the soil
  • these breakdown minerals, form aggregates with sticky excretions, as they move around, creating pathways for air and water in the root zone, bringing nutrients up from lower levels
  • aids in reducing compaction and surface crusting
  • can be a major source of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and chemical nutrients like Sulfur
  • a carbon supply for many microbes that perform other beneficial functions, for example the nitrogen-fixing bacteria (we’ll come to that)
  • humus buffers the soil against rapid changes in acidity, alkalinity and salinity, and damage by pesticides and toxic heavy metals.

The disadvantages of OM are few but it needs to be added regularly, it may contain weed seeds if not cured in a hot enough environment, some forms liked chipped bark and leaves can rob Nitrogen from the soil, it can encourage some pests if laid too deeply and can remain too wet on already clay soils.

We can add organic matter into the soil in several ways, by digging it in or by adding it to the soil surface as a mulch. Plenty of materials can be used as an organic mulch and the benefits of one over another will vary but these generally apply –

  • cover the soil
  • reduce soil erosion
  • reduce water runoff
  • reduce rainfall impact
  • prevents crusts from forming
  • regulates temperature
  • reduces drying out effects of the sun
  • conserves moisture
  • all more rainfall to be retained in the soil
  • provides nutrients, slowly leaching into the soil over time
  • if a no-dig system, prevents pans forming
  • smothers weeds and reduces time subsequently weeding
  • builds OM in the soil
  • feeds soil organisms, provides a varied habitat
  • helps improve sandy and clay soils
  • it can be decorative

Organic Mulches should be between 2″-4″ deep, no more as this can cause other problems, and can be –

  • straw
  • strulch
  • homemade compost
  • chipped bark
  • aged manure
  • mushroom compost
  • cocoa shell
  • chopped bracken (acid plants)
  • green manures
  • intercropping

Green manures are plants grown on bare soil, when it would otherwise be empty of crops, used specifically to improve soil structure and nutrition, particularly relating to Nitrogen (N) – it is also a living mulch, protecting bare soil and to outcompete weeds.On sandy or chalky soils leaching of nutrients is reduced.