Monthly Archives: February 2014

Magnificent Manrique

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As Gaudi proved in Barcelona, an individual can change the landscape of an area for all time, and in Lanzarote, where I spent last week, César Manrique was such an individual.

Looking through over a hundred photos I’d taken in four different venues he’d created, I was struggling to find one which I felt captured what makes him special, and ultimately I settled on the one above.  Although not ideal, as other visitors have intruded on the shot and there aren’t many plants, I feel it demonstrates a certain rule breaking mentality, as well as a keen sense of humour.

The photo was taken in the ‘Jardin de Cactus,’ created by Manrique together with botanist Estanislao González Ferrer, largely in the 1980’s.  It is located in a disused quarry towards the north of the island, which not only gives an impressive amphitheatre effect, but also ensures the garden is protected from Lanzarote’s fierce winds (which, during our visit, never ceased to blow).  

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The garden contains more than 7,200 cactus plants, illustrating more than 1,100 different species, and have been sourced from countries such as Peru, Mexico, Chile, United States, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar and Morocco as well as the Canary Islands.  They were planted in soil which was then ‘top dressed’ with the local black volcanic ‘dust.’  To be honest, I generally found the island’s black landscape quite depressing, but here in the cactus garden, Manrique has made it a real asset.

The following three plants from the garden are hardly recognisable as Euphorbia, but are as follows: E. Stenoclada, (from Madagascar), E. Polyacantha (Ethiopia) and E. Abyssinica (also Ethiopia).

Unfortunately many of the other plants in the garden were unnamed and my cactus knowledge is  far too poor to be able to identify them, so I’ve just grouped them according to “pink,”

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and, of course, “spiky.”

Just pleachy #2

2014 02 006So finally, here they are, the pleached hornbeams.

A number of lessons learnt, including the fact that I don’t like savagely pruning trees any more than I do throwing away seedlings – it just seems a terrible waste of ‘growing’.

And secondly, it’s all very well buying cheap trees, but it’s very easy to blow the budget when you end up having to buy a shiny new ladder!

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

For the second year running I’ve just purchased the “Maria Thun Biodynamic Calendar”. The calendar, which comes in the form of a slim book, gives the optimum sowing, pruning and harvesting times for different types of plants according to biodynamic planting principles.

The idea is that as the moon orbits the earth it transmits forces which affect the four elements, Earth, Light (Air), Water and Warmth (Fire).  These in turn affect the four parts of plants – roots, flowers, leaves and fruit/seeds.  As a consequence, the health and growth of a plant can supposedly be enhanced by sowing, cultivating and harvesting according to these lunar cycles.

Now, as someone with a scientific background, my initial reaction to this is one of disbelief; it sounds like a great deal of hocus pocus.  And yet.

Maria Thun, who sadly died in 2012, spent a lifetime investigating the phenomena of different plant growth characters when sown on different days.  She undertook increasingly detailed trials at three different sites in Germany and she linked the observed phenomena to the zodiac calendar, ultimately creating the biodynamic calendar.

The biodynamic calendar books relate not only some of her experiences, but also those of others following these principles.  Notably this year they tell the story of the beneficial effect of biodynamic planting on vineyards, and share the fascinating tidbit that both Tesco and Marks and Spencer will only hold tastings for wine critics on days when, according to this calendar, the wines will be at their best.

I grow many plants from seed every year and in the past have sometimes felt almost paralysed into inactivity by how many seeds need planting, or planting on or planting out. Last year, I found following the planting calendar really helped me focus on getting things done.  It gave an urgency to individual planting tasks and as a consequence I intend to follow it again this year.

I still find ‘planting by the moon’ faintly ridiculous, but, if it helps get the planting done in the first place, that has to be positive.  Whatever the moon’s doing, seeds don’t grow well in the packet.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this practice.

Sunday lunch

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Rather madly I suggested eating lunch outside today as, for once, the sun was shining.  And although rather chilly (despite being under a glass canopy) the timing could have been worse, as ten minutes later there was a significant hail storm.

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I’ve taken the daffodils as a prompt to consider things yellow today (as opposed to blue) and the photo below shows next door’s mimosa currently lit up among the grey, bare branches surrounding it.  The sight reminds me of a weekend in late February around twenty years ago when I went to Rome for the weekend.  The sun shone, we walked for miles around the stunning architecture, had coffee outside in the beautiful Piazza Navona, and on the Sunday, A bought me a bunch of mimosa (Acacia dealbata) from a street seller.  We learnt that mimosa is a symbol of “Women’s Day” in Italy, a day celebrated in numerous countries globally (although not the UK) and in many a public holiday.  The actual date isn’t actually until March 8th but by then I will have forgotten and the mimosa won’t be flowering.

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Next is my witch hazel (Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Pallida’).  I planted this shortly after we arrived here having admired a massive specimen near the Princess of Wales conservatory in Kew Gardens.  I can’t say mine is exactly thriving, but it does seem to be getting better year on year so I think I just have to be patient.  According to Crocus it should grow to 3m x 3m, but mine is probably only 1m x 0.5m, certainly not large enough to start cutting branches for the house.

Something else I won’t be cutting for the house is my Mahonia (above), after a comment regarding a winter arrangement I made years ago – ‘oh dear, I think the cat’s done something unpleasant in the sitting room’ – so much for it smelling of Lily of the Valley!  As you can see, the Mahonia has nearly finished flowering in my shady bed and so will shortly be pruned back and mulched.

And lastly, I have a couple of pots either side of a door and in one of those chance combinations, the flowers of the Correa backhouseana are exactly matched by the papery sheaths of the newly emerging crocus shoots.  The Correa, which hails from eastern Australia, isn’t hardy, but has been very happy so far this winter against this south facing wall.  According to the RHS it can be propagated by seed (or semi hardwood cuttings), so that’s another thing to add to the ever lengthening seed list….

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Just pleachy!

2014 02 014 Before we get on to the ‘pleachy’ aspect of this post I just had to share this picture of a gorgeous hellebore (as well as my gorgeous thumb).  Of course hellebores are shy and retiring and like to keep their faces downcast and demure which, when they’re as lovely as this one, is just so frustrating (hence the thumb).  And yet, in the same way that I really don’t like the idea of pink delphiniums, I think perhaps a ‘look you in the eye’ hellebore would lose some of its magic.  Surely at this time of year we’re resigned to having to work at finding things worth looking at in the garden – even if it does mean getting down on our hands and knees in the bog that used to be the lawn.

So, back to the title.  Today was rather unusual as, in addition to plants, it also involved two men and a digger – not my usual gardening style.  The day was spent outside in the bluster (but luckily not the rain) planting trees in a neighbour’s garden.  The idea was to plant a row of hornbeams to pleach into a screen.  Of course there are some wonderful ready pleached trees, but these will cost you at least £500 each.  Instead we were dealing with some trees which cost £30, but clearly there would be more effort involved.

Firstly we had to decide on the approach for the structure to both train and support them.  We wanted something sufficiently sturdy, but not so obtrusive it detracted from the trees, we wanted something which could be removed once the trees are established, so no concrete, and we didn’t want to use wire as I’d read it can cut into the branches you’re trying to train.

I think it’s fair to say there were some robust ‘discussions’ going on over the weekend as to the best approach.  And nothing had been decided by the time I had to drop my son at a paintballing event on Sunday.  Now this may seem irrelevant, but in a serendipitous way, it turned out to provide the solution, as there, at the paintballing site, were some lovely hazel rods for sale.  I picked up three bundles for £5, perfect.

So, together with the posts, the rods and the bamboo, we had our kit:

Whilst Nimbus and I were working on the structure to train the trees against, A and Andy the digger man were busy banging in the posts:

Having erected the posts, next we planted the trees.  We decided it would be easier to plant them without any other structure in place and then, once the trees were in place we would attach the bamboo and hazel frames to the posts and then train the trees onto the frames.  We used the digger to dig a long trench and then positioned the trees and backfilled with some sandier, lighter soil.  We didn’t add manure to the planting area as I’d heard that if you make the immediate planting area too rich the tree doesn’t bother to push its  roots out to the surrounding soil.  We gave them all a good soak, despite the forecast rain, and tomorrow we’ll top dress the whole trench with manure.

So, below you can see the trees in position.  Since then we’ve also put one frame in place and tomorrow we should finish the job.  I’ve already started pruning away the branches growing either in the ‘wrong’ direction, or below the level we want the screen to start, and tomorrow will start to train the remaining branches onto the four bamboo ‘layers’.

It’s not exactly instant but I’m excited to see the finished effect tomorrow – and even more excited to see the hornbeams greening up in the spring.

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February’s barrow

2014 02 021I treated myself to this barrow at a junk shop shortly before I opened the garden for the St Helen’s Secret Gardens event last June.  I wanted to liven up a rather dull corner which featured little apart from a shady bay and some chopped wood.

I’ve decided to add a monthly photo showing what’s on the barrow, and although it’s not looking too exciting at the moment (perhaps the monthly photo will inspire greater effort), the clear highlight for me is the Fuschia Microphylla which I bought from Eddington Nursery last year – it just keeps on flowering.  And actually the Cineraria, not a plant I think I’d want actually in the garden, has been pretty good too – it just keeps on being silver.

Happy February!