April 2020 – The Joys of being a Plant Parent

Firstly, I need to let you know I’m not a parent; not in the true sense of the word. My partner, Peter and I are ‘parents’ to two rather gorgeous moggies, Benson & Willow, but thereafter any ‘parenting’ is pretty much non-existent. That having been said, alongside aforementioned felines, I do tend to take a somewhat (tough) parental path with the plethora of plants in my patch. I do, its no joke!

Each morning, particularly in April, I’m seen running around the garden cajoling my unruly ‘kids’ to get out of bed (not so much a bed as a greenhouse really) so that I can feed and water them before making them presentable for the day ahead. And then, of course, the longer term goal of keeping them fit and healthy for the school term, sorry, the gardening season ahead.

This month is all about ‘waking up’ sleeping plants. Dahlias, deciduous agapanthus, zantedeschias (Calla lilies), Abyssinian bananas, pelargoniums and brugmansias all spend the winter months cosied up in the greenhouse. Not that cosy though; ‘tough love’ parenting means I set the temperature to just above freezing at 2-3°C maximum. I won’t be tolerating any ‘namby-pamby’, cosseted plants on my watch. And so, with the spring sunshine (hopefully) streaming into our daffodil-laden gardens the process of gradually wakening these sleeping beauties begins. With all of the aforementioned plants, a sip or two of water is their only initial requirement; just enough to dampen the compost around their roots. Too much water and tubers or root systems might rot. Slowly, slowly catchy monkey. As the month romps away, and blimey, April can move like shiitake mushrooms off a shovel (I believe that’s the phrase), watering is gradually increased in terms of both volume and frequency. Towards the middle of the month a fortnightly liquid feed (tomato feed with seaweed extract) is incorporated into the H2O regime. These plants will need to perform brilliantly for their ‘pushy’ show-business parent and, beginning to feed now on a fortnightly basis is the perfect time to put those ‘show-time’ wheels in motion.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ beginning to grow away

Towards the end of April, if not sooner, signs of life will become evident (the plants, not me). Finials of fresh green foliage on deciduous agapanthus and zantedeschia (Calla lilies) will push up determinedly from within the pots; the dark, plum-coloured, juvenile foliage of the Abyssinian banana will twist up slowly from the top of its ‘rubbery’ stem and fresh, green leafage will gradually emerge from the seemingly dormant stems of brugmansia. Similarly with dahlias, small dark, shiny eyes will begin to twinkle across the tops of the awakening tubers.

Yes, we have no (Abyssinian) bananas

In other greenhouse news, cosmos and tithonia seedlings are growing away nicely, thank you for asking. Once the first set of true leaves have unfolded, usually mid-April here, it’s time to prick them out and pot on into my plastic, modular cell trays. As they’re plastic, they’ll continue to be used now until such time as they are no longer fit for purpose.

Cosmos seedlings

My castor oil, Ricinus communis ‘Red Giant’ seedlings, true to their variety name put on monstrous growth fairly quickly and were potted on into 1L pots of rich garden compost in the first week of the month. A rich compost will serve them well as they need all the energy they can muster to attain their epic proportions in my borders. These six foot ‘giants’ will stun and amaze all who visit the garden, which seems likely to be just the two of us and the cats, as we speak!

Dark and moody foliage of Ricinus communis ‘Red Giant’

In the garden, borders are fed with chicken manure pellets to nourish the tentative signs of perennial growth, just beginning to peek above the surface of the soil. A gentle word of warning; both you and your neighbours will be aware that chicken manure has been deployed! The woody stems of Penstemon ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’ (syn. Garnet) and P. ‘Hidcote Pink’ are cut down to approximately ten centimetres, just above the newly emerging flush of new growth. I keep the top growth on penstemons during winter as it protects the crowns and roots on those seemingly never-ending cold, wet days.

April is also the time to consider lawn care options. Never a particularly enjoyable task (for me, at least) but attention now will pay dividends later. Lawn care now consists of

  • Scarification, (the removal of thatch from the lawn) which in law (my law), has to be done with the help of an electric/petrol scarifier. Don’t try this at home the ‘old fashioned’ way (by hand) unless you’re looking for a week convalescing in bed with backache.
  • Spiking the lawn with a garden fork (which is a ‘GREAT’ workout) is also incredibly beneficial for the lawn (and me) as it helps alleviate compaction and gets oxygen down to the grass roots, both of which will work wonders for that lush, green, striped, summer sward.
  • Over-seeding, to cover any bare patches.

It’s been a glorious April with clear, blue skies and temperatures soaring to 21°C. In my garden, blooming their spring socks off this month have been Tulipa ‘Purple Dream’, T. ‘Ballerina’ and T. ‘Prinses Irene’ alongside ivory Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Pulsatilla vulgaris ‘Alba’ all overlooked by the delightful purple, red and pea-green shades of unfurling acer foliage.

See you next month folks!

Tulipa ‘Ballerina’, T. ‘Prinses Irene’ & T. ‘Purple Dream’

Enjoy the silence

Sunday 5 April 2020

It’s raining! They promised clear, blue skies. Clear blue skies ALL DAY LONG!

I’d added sun-oriented jobs to my (let’s keep busy) ‘Things to Do’ list. Weeding the (pretty much weed-free) borders, sweeping the (immaculately clean) paths, a spot of pruning and then later a quick flick through ‘The Garden’ (the monthly RHS magazine) with a healthy glass of chilled, grape liquid!

Then, unexpectedly rain stops play! So revert quickly to Plan B: A trip to the local Tesco for provisions as the sun is clearly running late now (11am now forecast). Coats on and off we trot… out into the clear, blue, sunny skies!

Bournemouth town centre is deserted, quiet and eerie. It’s like walking through an abandoned film set, our footsteps echoing a little too loudly on the block paving. Silver-grey, steel window shutters pulled down in front of every shop window, the remnants of a Twix wrapper rustling too noisily around the base of an empty rubbish bin. Electronic advertisement boards telling the empty square ‘CORONAVIRUS KILLS, STAY AT HOME’. This isn’t any deserted film-set. This is REAL life. This is OUR life. This is ALL of OUR lives.

A queue of three people outside the supermarket soon clears and we’re back home before we know it, bag full of essentials, and safe. And it’s clouded over!

The sun continues to play hide and seek behind high, hazy clouds but eventually clears. Shorts are donned, dusty sunglasses retrieved from the back of a drawer and our first al-fresco meal of the season.

Friends are face-timed (is that what we call this lap-toppy, video-type communication thing?). Happy, chatty, smiley. And it gets better still. Peter makes a super, ridiculously high, fresh cream Victoria sponge and all is (sort of) well with the world.

At 8pm we sit, Vicky sponge in hand, ready for our Queen to address the nation. This is ONLY the fourth time the Queen has made a broadcast outside of her usual Christmas speech; the ‘Diana’ speech being the last; or was that Helen Mirren? The Queen, as always is stoic, strong and serene. She said that, as during the Second World War, the country must take comfort in the fact that once again, “better days will return”.

We go to bed…. Proud to be British. Proud to be British in the face of adversity.

Monday 6 April 2020

A most acceptable start to Monday with the sun clocking-in well ahead of ETA (clearly felt bad after yesterday’s unacceptable tardiness). Pleased also to see that the unnecessary and unwanted cloud cover has been left behind to allow the sun unobstructed access to me and my garden. So before prevailing weather conditions changed their mind, shorts were quickly donned, sunglasses retrieved (again) and genuine Steer Hyde cowboy hat plonked on noddle. Also and very importantly, slathered myself in SPS factor 50. Smelling like a moist coconut macaroon is preferential to a potentially life threatening skin melanoma. I really can’t emphasise enough how important protection from the sun is, especially for us gardeners who spend so much time under its loving gaze. Sermon over!

A productive morning weeding borders. In all honesty the garden has never had so much attention lavished upon it. The borders are practically weed (and snail) free now. Curiously, I have also become rather accustomed to the usually rather unacceptable stink of chicken manure pellets, which were thrown onto the borders last week. Probably rather beneficial that social distancing is currently in force, as having to explain the aroma around oneself as being ‘Eau d’Chicken Poo’ might be a tad embarrassing.

The rather stunning, zingy apple-green stems of Cornus flaviramea are beginning to leaf up. It’s at this time of year when the leaves start to appear that some, if not all of the stems should be cut back hard to about 5 cm. It seems particularly brutal, but will pay dividends as the fresh new growth will retain the vibrant, strong colours into next winter. Clearly, the stems can be left unpruned, but expect them to be slightly muted in colour during winter.

Cornus flaviramea

As a garden designer I’m always wittering on about the importance of seating in the garden. Nothing beats breakfasting by the buddleia, lazy, lavender-scented lunches with a chilled Lambrusco and/or an ambrosial al-fresco meal nestled adjacent to a perfectly perfumed honeysuckle. And so, this evening we decided to take our repose with a cheeky, pre-dinner drink on our beloved, chalk-white Lutyens bench. Somewhat late to the party, I arrived, Pinot Grigio in hand and placed myself wearily upon aforementioned pew. No sooner had tush met timber when a resounding crack saw us plunged onto the patio paving. To say I was upset was an understatement; I literally hadn’t drank a drop of my Pinot Grigio!

Going down!

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Somewhat shocked to be woken by a crackling radio announcing that our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has been moved to intensive care with Coronavirus. This is going to get harder before it gets easier, that’s for sure.

In lighter news, following Lutyens-gate yesterday, our bistro table and chairs have been temporarily re-sited onto the ‘Lutyens Patio’. Investigations are currently underway to:

  1. Determine the cause of the Lutyens’ demise after ONLY three years use, and
  2. Source an affordable replacement

The results from investigation ‘1’ (above) are in. We bought cheap!

Investigations into ‘2’ (above) are somewhat thwarted by “the current situation”. Finding an online retailer who will ship at the moment is proving difficult. Bistro table and chairs stay in-situ then for the time being.

Whilst most garden centres are currently closed and locked down, I do, luckily, have access to a rather smart trade-only nursery locally. This is a godsend, as I am able to source chicken manure pellets (to feed the borders) and an impressive selection of shrubs, perennials, climbers and grasses. In fact you name it, and they’ve probably got it or can get it. As it stands, I was only looking for a beautiful Helleborus sternii ‘Silver Lace’, which I had planted for a client earlier in the year, and then realised on Monday (better late than never) that I really wanted it for myself. Somehow it didn’t seem ‘the right thing to do’ to dig up the seven I had planted in her garden; call me old fashioned?!

The evenings are still a tad too cool (flippin’ freezing) to sit outside and sat watching ‘bad’ TV just isn’t floating my boat just now. As such, in a semi state of desperation, we continue to plough through the complete box set of ‘Call the Midwife’. If the gardening gig doesn’t work out for me, I’m pretty sure I’d make a fine midwife…. “Come on lovely, push…., breathe now…, that’s right…, now quick, short pants…..”! You’re impressed, aren’t you?

Wednesday 8 April 2020

Boris still in intensive care. Get well soon sir! Your country needs you!

Continuing great weather (thank goodness), so straight outside and off to the greenhouse for roll-call. All present and correct and (thankfully) no casualties, which is always reassuring. It’s that time of year when my dahlias are beginning to wake up, after being treated to a splash of water (just enough to dampen the soil). My two Abyssinian bananas are also showing signs of new growth too. Beautiful burgundy-red and pea-green coloured foliage is slowly winding its way up from the growing point and pushing through last year’s tired leaves. A good water and (tomato) feed will work wonders for these two now. And then, on warm days like today, a few hours outside in the spring sunshine will prepare them for life outside the greenhouse in a few weeks time. A sort of ‘horticultural parole’, I guess.

Late afternoon (I am talking after 5pm) and the lawns and I are calling out for some liquid refreshment. The cold water is received gratefully by…..? Well, I’ll leave you to work that one out… hic!

Thursday 9 April 2020

Lockdown is beginning to feel like that ‘no-man’s land’ time between Christmas and New Year, except with good weather and no turkey sandwiches. I actually find myself checking my phone each morning to remind myself what day of the week it is (the date seems somewhat incidental now). It’s Thursday!

Amazingly 68 people ‘tune in’ to witness me wandering round my garden (LIVE) again. Incredulously, they all stick with it for 38 minutes, and more join in. People are clearly stuck for things to do.

A local trade plant retailer (mentioned earlier) is still open and delivering. My order of five Helleborus sternii ‘Silver Lace’ arrives… (along with!) Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, and eight ‘fizzy’ red Heuchera ‘Cherry Cola’ arrives. Hurrah! I needed a plant fix. Incidentally, there are plenty of fantastic on-line plant retailers with mail order service. Click here if you, like me, also need a plant fix! The link takes you to a comprehensive list of participating nurseries and specialists.

Thursday evening is (unbelievably) the third ‘Clap for Carers’. I love the wonderfully positive and heart-warming sentiment behind this. It also brings with it a great sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ community spirit. It has literally brought tears to my eyes each week. CONGRATULATIONS to all of our NHS workers, and indeed anyone who is on the frontline or a key worker. We APPLAUD YOU ALL.

Friday 10 April 2020

It’s Good Friday. It’ll clearly not as ‘Good’ a Friday as we’ve been used to in previous years, so I’ve re-named it Good (for gardening) Friday. And it will be. The fantastic weather is on a most welcome ‘groundhog day’ routine. The warm sun on my face and the azure skies above have lifted the mood of the nation. I rush out to the greenhouse to check the ‘kids’ are OK before setting off on my morning walk of the ‘estate’. Five minutes later (clearly use of the word ‘estate’ is a slight exaggeration) and it’s breakfast (fried eggs on toast, our annual GF treat).

Out into the garden we trot and sit basking in the glorious heat. It is VERY clear to us now that things are currently VERY different. In any other year, Easter brings rain, grey skies and wind. How ironic that lockdown prevents us tripping out to the forest or the beach with our Tupperware’d sandwiches and quiche and a Thermos of (dubious-tasting) coffee.

This morning Cosmos seedlings are pricked out of seed trays and transplanted into individual plastic modules. Like many of us I’m trying to eliminate the use of plastic, but these modules have a few more years use still, so I’ll continue to use them until I really have to consign them to landfill.

Next it’s off with the hellebores’ faded flowers, which are all heavy with seeds. Hellebores self-seed readily enough, but the offspring never (or very rarely) come true. The young hellebore flowers are generally ‘muddy’ shades of pink, yellow or red. Not acceptable in this garden I’m afraid.

And so I wish each and every one of you a very Happy Easter. Yes it will be different for all of us, but let’s all try and make it different in a positive way. We cannot choose a lot of what is happening around us at the moment, but our approach to dealing with it is something we can (second sermon over).

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