Below you will find a selection of short articles written by members of RHSI, the Irish Garden Plant Society (IGPS) and the Alpine Garden Society.
When planting most clematis, it is advisable to dig a hole not only big enough to accommodate the root ball, but it must also be deep enough to allow one, or better still, two sets of leaf joints to be buried below the surface of the soil. Do make sure to fork over the bottom of the hole to loosen the soil. This will ensure the plant is able to send its roots down and helps to ensure good drainage.
C. viticella do not need to be planted in this way, they prefer to be planted to the depth that they are in the pot.
As a final preparation before planting give your clematis a thorough watering. If it is very dry it would be a good idea to soak it in a bucket or water for about two hours before planting. You will find that a newly planted clematis will require fairly regular watering if planted during late spring or summer.
It is very important to feed your Clematis with a liquid feed. Where time is limited you can use a handful of bone-meal worked in around the base of the Clematis. This is a slow acting feed and will provide nourishment over a long period. You can also use Sulphate of Potash which improves the flowers, not only in terms of quantity but also the size and depth of colour. Like bone-meal, do water it in if there is no rain forecasts. Liquid feed should only be applied from late spring onwards, tomato food is excellent. A fortnightly liquid feed from late spring onwards is adequate for most clematis.
Dahlias are among the darlings of late Summer and Autumn. They come in many shapes and sizes, from pompoms like ‘John Markham’ 5cm to giant flowered like ‘Aggie White’ which can reach 30cm if disbudded and restricted to 2 or 3 blooms per plant.
The range of colours is spectacular, with single colour and bi-colour blooms covering most of the spectrum. The exception is blue. We have no blue dahlias although some lavender and lilac varieties come close.
A small, single-flowered dahlia plant was originally grown by the Aztecs in Mexico for their starchy tubers which were harvested and stored for winter use. Aztecs also used the skins of the tuber as an antibiotic. Inulin in dahlia tubers helps moderate blood sugar and can be converted into a sweetener. I am sure I saw a recipe for dahlia wine many years ago.
Discovered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, the first dahlia seeds were sent to Madrid at the end of the 18th century. Plant breeding developed bloom variations such as anemone flowered, water-lily, collarette, star, etc. In 1963 Mexico selected the dahlia as its national flower.
Late Spring is the time to plant dahlia tubers. Add organic matter such as well-rotted manure or compost to the planting hole, or alternatively a handful of a base feed like Growmore. Plant about 10-15 cm deep in their flowering position in full sun. Protect young shoots from slugs and snails. Earwigs can also be a problem.
I support each plant with a single 120cm cane tying the growing plant to the cane with garden twine. To grow a large bed of dahlias you could use posts with 8-10cm netting at a height of 45cm over the top, through which the dahlias grow. Once the plants are established you will not see the netting.
For a bushier plant, pinch out the growing point when the plant is about 38cm high. For bigger blooms, pinch out the two buds at the side of the main flower bud. Deadheading will help to prolong flowering up to the first frost.
Dahlias do very well in containers. Plant in a rich soil-based compost. Feed and water regularly.
The dahlias photographed were all raised in Ireland. All except “Anne Hammond” can be seen in the National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin and also in President Higgins’ garden at Áras an Uachtaráin.
One of the great joys of spring is the emerging flowers of the fairy wings or Epimedium.These often very tough plants form wonderful mats of semi evergreen foliage which if cut back to 3 or 4 inches in January enables a clear view of their exotic looking flowers, often referred to as fairy wings, in March.
Epimedium are perfect woodland plants. Although slow to establish, given time they create carpets underneath trees and shrubs. They are not difficult to grow and are comfortable where there is little moisture. They look best in a woodland setting in semi shade. Having said that, Ballyrobert have them growing as ground cover in a large pot of a weeping birch and they look sensational.
In addition to a wide colour variation in the flowers the newly emerging foliage of many varieties can best be described as sumptuous.
There are lots of varieties but it is difficult to find better than E. ‘Sulphureum’ with its plentiful yellow flowers and bright bronze emerging foliage. There are some beautiful white types such as ‘Arctic Wings’ and ‘Niveum’. The former has most attractive foliage. E. rubrum also has a superb foliage and flower combination.
A more recent introduction E. ‘Amber Queen’ flowers later and longer with tall spikes of flowers held well above the foliage. It looks good planted to the front of an evergreen such as a holly. This provides a very different plant combination in the garden.
It is rather sad that this wonderful plant is not more widely available but I can assure gardeners it is worth the effort to search for them.
The family Gesneriaceae, to which the popular house plants ‘African Violets’ and ‘Cape Primroses’ belong, is diverse and widely distributed in the tropics and subtropics, but also contains several European genera and species which are frost hardy. Best known of these are Ramonda and Haberlea, both of which can be grown outside in Ireland without difficulty.
Ramonda contains three species, R. myconi (commonly referred to as R. pyrenaica) from the Pyrenees and the mountains of west and central Catalonia, and R. nathaliae and R. serbica from the Balkans. They are clearly relics from the Tertiary flora of southern Europe, which enjoyed a warmer and more humid climate than the present flora. The three species are superficially similar. The thick, hairy, dark green, corrugated leaves form a rosette above which the flat to open bell-shaped flowers are displayed on short stems.The typical colour of the petals is violet to pale blue, which contrasts nicely with the exserted yellow stamens; there are also white forms of each species and I grow a pink form of R. myconi.
Of the three species, my favourite is R. nathaliae, which is easily distinguished by its flowers that are formed by four overlapping petals, in contrast to the five petals of the other two species. Ramonda spp. in the wild are rock dwellers. In the Cirque de Garvarnie in the Pyrenees, the vertical rock walls are studded with rosettes of R. myconi (and also Saxifraga longifolia), which at flowering time in late May and June are reported to be a magnificent sight. This gives a clue as to how to cultivate ramondas. They are happiest in crevices in a vertical wall in part shade as seen in this illustration.
They also grow well in tufa. They are ‘resurrection’ plants: in drought conditions, the leaves shrivel and become brown and appear to be dead but rehydrate and green up as soon as the plant is watered. However, I think that in cultivation they grow more vigorously if there is a regular supply of water to the roots. They can also be grown in pots using a well-drained but moisture retentive, neutral or slightly calcareous compost. They respond well to feeding with a balanced fertilizer. One of our members, Liam Byrne, won a Farrer Medal with this particularly well grown and abundantly flowered specimen of R. myconi some years ago.
Most authorities consider that Haberlea, which is also from the Balkans, is monotypic. However, in the literature there are references to both H. rhodopensis (the accepted name) and H. fernandi-coburgii. The plants that I grow are rosette-forming with funnel-shaped, lilac-coloured single flowers with a paler throat, held on short stems. The cultivar ‘Connie Davidson’ has slightly darker and more numerous flowers. I also grow the white H. rhodopensis ‘Virginalis’ which I think is more attractive than the type. I have seen pictures of plants identified as H. ferdinandi-coburgii, which have flatter flowers, rather like those of Ramonda. Perhaps they are intergeneric hybrids. Haberlea is easy to grow in positions similar to those preferred by Ramonda.
The third genus of European gesneriads is Jancaea, commonly incorrectly written as Jankaea, whose only species, J. heldreichii, grows on Mount Olympus in northern Greece, where it is protected. It is a most beautiful plant, forming rosettes of felted, silver-grey leaves and several violet bell-shaped flowers on short flowering stems. It is difficult to acquire and also difficult to cultivate. However, some growers have achieved considerable success, to the extent that self-sown seedlings have prospered.
One of these is the Dutch maestro Harry Jans, who has plants growing outside on his tufa wall. The conditions that he has created, vertical crevices with excellent drainage and a ready supply of moisture from the irrigation system built into the wall, mimic the plants’ habitat in the wild – limestone cliffs with plenty of moisture from swirling mists and nearby streams, but enough breeze to ensure that the crowns of the plants remain dry.
Where the ranges of Ramonda serbica and R. nathaliae overlap, natural hybrids between the two species occur. Both intergeneric and intrageneric hybrids between the five European species have been created by horticulturalists. Of these, I grow x Ramberlea ‘Inchgarth’ which has pale lilac flowers that are intermediate in shape between those of Ramonda and Haberlea. I have attempted but lost the beautiful x Jancaemonda vandedemii, which has the lovely silver-grey foliage of Jancaea but is reputedly easier to grow.
Propagation of all five species is by seed (apart from Jancaea, commonly available from society seed exchanges), by leaf cuttings or by division.The tough seed capsules split in June or July to yield hundreds of individual dust-like seeds. They germinate readily but grow extremely slowly. To prevent the tiny seedlings drying out (which is fatal) or being overgrown by liverwort, I sow the seed on top of chopped sphagnum moss which I first sterilize with boiling water. The compost below the sphagnum is a perlite and John Innes mix (also sterilized) contained in a round pot, capped by a clear plastic beaker that fits tightly within the rim, as in this photograph:
The mini-greenhouse so formed is kept on a north-facing windowsill out of direct sunlight because the seedlings scorch easily. I make sure that the compost is kept moist by occasionally steeping the pot in water. The seedlings should not be moved until they make rosettes approximately five millimetres across, which may take up to two years.
After that they can be potted on, preferably in June or July, and will grow much faster. I have read that growth can be speeded up by placing the pots under grow lights but have not tried this. Note that this technique is also applicable to the propagation of ferns.
Many gesneriads can be propagated by leaf cuttings. A leaf from the centre of the rosette should be detached by pulling it downward so that it comes away with the entire petiole. The leaf should be inserted to about a third of its length, petiole down, in the cutting compost (sand plus vermiculite, for example). After several months small plantlets will develop from the leaf, which should be left until it rots away. Side rosettes detached from larger plants can also be rooted in a cutting compost.
As well as European taxa, there are Asiatic and South American gesneriads that are grown and exhibited by alpine enthusiasts, but that is a story for another day.
This article was contributed by the Alpine Garden Society, Dublin Group. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
When it was suggested I do a piece on growing for flower arranging, it prompted me to look back at the notes we had from our early days as flower arrangers. I will focus on foliage we can grow in our gardens and then use in the house.
Most of the plants I suggest are evergreen and so are available to arrangers almost year round. The exception is the period when new growth appears in the Spring. Soft new leaves don’t hold up when they are cut and placed in water.
Choisya ternata , the Mexican orange blossom, is an excellent foliage plant for flower arrangers either in its original form with glossy, dark green, evergreen foliage and star-shaped white flowers or in the variety Choisya ternata 'Sundance’, the Golden Mexican orange blossom, with golden-coloured, star-shaped flowers.
Myrtus communis the Common myrtle is native to the Mediterranean region. The plant is an evergreen shrub or small tree, growing to 5 meters (16 ft) tall. The dark green leaves are three to five centimetres long.
Azara microphylla, the box-leaf azara, is another large evergreen shrub or small tree, with very small glossy dark green leaves. Flowers are small, deep yellow, vanilla-scented, in small clusters from late Spring. I have variegated one, a great buy at a plant sale many moons ago.
Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Irene Paterson' is a slow-growing evergreen shrub, the rounded, leaves opening white, becoming dark green speckled with white and often tinged pink in winter. I prefer this variety to the common P. tenuifolium with the plain green leaf, which is probably too large for most of our gardens.
Griselinia are upright evergreen shrubs with simple, ovate leaves and tiny yellow-green flowers, male and female on separate plants. If you allow both the privet and the griselinia to grow as shrubs and don’t trim as a hedge they will provide excellent tall straight stems for use with flowers.
Phormium tenax, the New Zealand flax, comes in many varieties. Phormium are evergreen perennials, making a large clump of leathery, strap-shaped leaves, with tall panicles of small, tubular flowers in summer. Tall and straight or wavy, cream or bronze and dark, the choice is yours.
Perennials Alchemilla mollis, the lady's-mantle and Arum italicum pictum together with Arum italicum subsp. italicum 'Marmoratum' give very useful ‘greens’ each in their own season.
All these plants are available from Irish nurseries and garden centres. Remember, when you plant a shrub from a small pot it will grow so give it a little more room please.
Let’s get planting for flower arranging.
I remember Verney Naylor talking about her lovely garden in Sandymount and commenting that she had started with an open south facing site and, as a result of about 20 years of planting, was now gardening mostly in dry shade. I planted a grove of Birch Betula pendula 20 years ago and have a similar problem. Pruning of lower branches and mulching soil have helped light and moisture but the plant choice is limited. Part of the solution is to plant well in large planting holes using plenty of compost and watering in the first growing season. Then, if you’ve chosen the right plant and your luck is in, it grows away under its own steam.
What’s the right plant? It’s been trial and error and I’ve watched over the slow demise of a small nursery of failures. The survivors include shrubs like various skimmia, mahonia, holly, hydrangeas and Astelia chathamica. Perennials and ground cover include Helleborus foetidus (which doesn’t stink and seeds about gently), Lamium orvala and its white version L. orvala ‘Album’ (avoid L. galeobdolon except for the most challenging places – it’s unstoppable!). Geranium macrorrhizum, Geranium nodosum (super and under-rated) and Geranium phaeum all do well. Lovely leaves of Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ and Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ add variety together with astrantia (I have A. ‘Star of Billion’, a dreadful name!). Finally, some ferns include polystichum and dryopteris in their varieties, one of my favourites being Polystichum polybletharum which has glossy fronds that show in the deepest of the shady places and mix well with pheasant grass Stipa arundinacea/ Anemanthele lessoniana, often a pest but not in dry shade.
Cos lettuces are generally more flavoursome and crisp, including Little Gem, Lobjoit’s Green Cos (small, wonderful flavour) and Romaine Ballon. Also
delicious is Marvel of Four Seasons (bronze, open, small heart). Crisp, colourful Batavia lettuces are well-flavoured and crisp. Lettuce should be rotated, as should all brassica salads.
For summer eating, think of adding cress (try Wrinkle Crinkle), French sorrel,
mesclun mix and Bull’s Blood beet leaves; these stand up to the heat if grown as cut-and-come-again crops. Sow peas to cut as delicious pea-tips; dried marrow-fat peas will do, unless you’ve saved a lot of seed. Dill is wonderful in salads, as are parsley and chives. In a cool, moist, partly shaded bed, try rocket, watercress and oriental salads, but they do bolt quickly (as most summer salads do).
In August, sow salad leaves for winter. Winter Gem, Arctic King, and Marvel of
Four Seasons lettuce and baby-leaf spinach should survive in a polytunnel. Curly endive (needs blanching) and chicory are super-hardy, but often rather chewy; Pain du Sucre is the tenderest. Also sow rocket (brassica – try Esmée), lamb’s lettuce (mild, nutty – Vit is good) winter purslane (mild, nutritious and succulent, liked by children) and watercress (brassica – grow in constantly damp soil). The oriental salad leaves mibuna and mizuna (mild) and mustard leaves (eat small as they get very hot) are brassicas, too, as are the youngest leaves of Red Russian kale. Chervil is great in winter lettuce salads.
Finally, suit your salad to your main dish. Brassica salads are good with red meat; spinach or sorrel and lemon thyme with chicken; dill, pea-tips and spinach with fish; and dill, chives, chervil and lettuce-leaf wraps with egg mayonnaise.
At the Alpine Garden Society Show every year, visitors of all gardening backgrounds marvel at the array of cushion plants, flowering bulbs, woodland plants and hardy ferns and orchids that are lined up on the benches. Many of these gardeners wonder how they might grow some of these plants at home, but some are worried about giving it a try, put off by the challenge of providing the special conditions that some of these plants prefer. Other gardeners wonder how they would fit a home for alpine plants into the overall design of their current plot.
Since the 1920s, troughs (and of course other containers such as alpine pans and pots) have been one of the ways that gardeners have used to solve the problems of providing the particular conditions that certain plants might need. For a start, troughs allow gardeners to create mini-environments with just the right soil conditions: acid or alkaline, gritty and free draining, or damp and peaty. Troughs also create a space where we can appreciate diminutive plants that might otherwise be swamped by larger border plants. For those of us with small gardens, troughs allow us to indulge a love for unusual plants and distant places, even in a limited space. Finally, troughs provide the creative gardener with small canvases on which to make miniature, specialised gardens or landscapes.
Traditionally, troughs were made of stone and many of us have coveted the traditional granite and limestone troughs we’ve seen in others’ gardens. Old Belfast sinks have also
been pressed into good service as homes for alpines. But both of these can be very hard to find now so a great alternative is to make your own!
We’ve recently made two troughs for our small garden, and both have settled well and provided great alpine gardening enjoyment. We found very useful resources online that show how to make troughs from polystyrene boxes and some mortar: just follow some of the links below. We used old broken roof slates and some discarded slabs of sandstone which meant the troughs were inexpensive to make and re-used materials that would otherwise have been thrown away.
Once the trough is made, the important thing is to experiment with the plants you love. I’ve planted tiny sea pinks and gentians to remind me of the Burren, Celmisia and Leptospermum from New Zealand, tiny willows and sedges, and of course Saxifrages and Sedums (great filler plants for troughs).
Don’t lost heart over Winter by the way: some of the plants may look forlorn, but they will revive come Spring and—with the right selection—delight you from then through early Summer and right through into late Autumn.
Visit these links for more:
‘The Beechgrove Garden’, episode 11 2015: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6vmr6s (Skip to 07:12 if you want to get straight to the bit on troughs).
More information about the Alpine Garden Society in Ireland is here: http://alpinegardensociety.ie/
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has nominated 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health. The International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) has been created to raise global awareness around plant health and how crucial plants, trees and forests are to our existence. Protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, boost economic development, protect the environment and support and enhance biodiversity. In this regard it is vital that we protect our horticulture, amenity/landscape and forestry sectors. Human activity and climate change have altered ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and creating new niches where pests and diseases can thrive. International travel and trade have tripled in scale in the last decade and can be responsible for the spread of pests and diseases around the world.
Protecting Plants, Protecting Life
The FAO tagline for IYPH is “Protecting Plants, Protecting Life.” Plants are crucial to the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity. They are essential for human survival. Plants make up 80% of the food we eat and they produce 98% of the oxygen we breathe. Plants are also crucial to the global economy with the annual value of trade in agricultural products estimated at €1.5 trillion.
The key messages for IYPH are;
IYPH and Ireland
On the 15th of January 2020, President Michael D. Higgins planted a native sessile oak (Quercus petrea) adjacent to the Phoenix Park Visitors Centre. This planting ceremony launched the International Year of Plant Health in Ireland. The people of Ireland have an intrinsic understanding of the importance of plant health.
This year will mark the 175th anniversary of the first confirmed finding of Potato blight in Ireland. The arrival of this plant disease on these shores had devastating consequences. The
spread of this pathogen began a chain of events which would lead to the loss of millions of Irish lives. It also resulted in the emigration of thousands more and left an indelible mark on the psyche of the Irish people.
The protection of Ireland’s native species of flora & fauna and biodiversity is essential to the quality of life for the citizens of this island and for future generations. A vibrant and cherished environment is of the upmost importance for the future of Ireland both socially and economically. The protection of plants is a cornerstone of our biodiversity. Ireland currently has 25 protected zones (the highest in Europe) approved by the EU to safeguard against the transportation and emergence of plant pests and diseases on this island. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine as the National Plant Protection Organisation (NPPO) of Ireland works very closely with our colleagues from DAERA to protect the island as a single epidemiological unit. We also work closely with our UK and European colleagues to protect our biodiversity.
As part of the International Year of Plant Health, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are planning to raise plant health awareness wherever possible to help mark this prestigious year. We are also planning events with other agencies and groups.
Some of these events have been postponed owing to the Covid 19 outbreak. DAFM’s main priority is ensuring that the critical food supply chains remain open and to facilitate ongoing imports and exports of food and at the same time, protect the plant health status of the European Union.
DAFM will be arranging events for later in the year and if you would like to get involved in any of our events or organise your own event please visit our website;
If you would like to learn more about the International year of Plant Health or If you would like to get involved or would like to check the planned events you can do so by visiting our website;
If you wish to contact us in relation to the International year of Plant Health you can do so by emailing;
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations International year of Plant Health can be found at http://www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/about/en/
During these times of uncertainty food-growing is back in fashion. Salads, peas, potatoes and calabrese can be planted now and here’s how to get growing in a few hours without any digging.
Place some carboard or newspapers directly on the sunny patch of lawn you wish to transform to a vegetable bed and place a wooden frame of 20cm depth on top of this. The cardboard will kill off the grass. Wet the carboard and fill the raised bed with manure, soil and compost in equal measure or with whatever you have to hand placing the manure at the bottom and the compost on top. Tread this down, rake and water well. You are now ready to start planting up.
Grow potatoes by placing them 30 cm apart on the surface. Using a trowel, slide the potato down 10cm below the surface and cover. As they grow, earth up with a few buckets of compost and water well when flowering.
Nearby, create a shallow drill with the edge of the trowel and sprinkle some salad seeds, cover lightly and water. Place peas 3cm apart in a row and push below the surface to the first knuckle on your index finger. As the peas grow, provide some horizontal support strings for their tendrils, harvest some for shoots too!
In a small pot, sow a few calabrese seeds. Ten days later, prick out the seedlings to individual modules for planting towards the end of the month about 45cm apart each way.
Check out my ‘how to’ videos on Instagram see biodiversity_and_Gardening
Some of Pat’s instagram videos
The garden is always at its best in Spring, but this year it is better than usual. This is partly due to the exceptionally good weather, but also to the fact that it has had my undivided attention for weeks on end due to Covid 19. ‘Cocooning’ is not a problem for me as long as I am allowed to work in the garden, so it is a win win situation for both myself and the garden.
Over the past number of years, I have been collecting ferns, hostas and rodgersias which all thrive in my moist shaded conditions. The idea of collecting rodgersias came from Stephen Butler, who suggested that I should make a collection of the Irish cultivars. Rodgersias are indigenous in moist woodlands and by streams in China and Japan. I already had four of the six species and loved their sculptural leaves and tall panicles of flowers so I needed no persuasion. Stephen put me in touch with Gary Dunlop of Ballyrogan Nursery, Newtownards. Gary was able to send me Rodgersia aesculifolia ‘Castlewellan’ and ‘Red Dawn’, R. podophylla ‘Slieve Donard’ and ‘Koriata, and R.pinnata ‘Panache’ and ‘Perthshire Bronze’. I was already growing R.pinnata superba, and have since acquired ‘Irish Bronze’ and a semi dwarf pink flowering variety . Unfortunately, I have been unable to source a cream/white flowered semi dwarf variety that I understand used to grow in some old Irish gardens. I would be delighted to find someone who knows where this is still growing or available.
Just recently rodgersias have had a surge in popularity and new cultivars and varieties have come on sale in our nurseries. Although these are not of Irish origin, I have been adding them to my collection. ‘Chocolate Wings’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Bronze Peacock’, ‘Braunlaub’, ‘Hercules’, ’Henrici superba’ and ‘Candy Clouds’ are all contributing to the diversity of the group and to the summer display. Rodgersias can be useful as ground cover once established and they are tolerant of wet conditions and will even cope with flash flooding. Definitely they are plants worth growing.
In his book Climbing Roses Old and New the late Graham Stuart Thomas described this rose as 'quite overpowering in flower both from the quantity of blossom and the delicious multiflora fragrance'.
Other growers describe Rosa 'Rambling Rector' as 'a very old cultivar with large clusters of fragrant semi-double flowers, creamy to begin with, then opening white with yellow centres'. The flowers, produced during the summer, are followed by small red hips in the autumn and winter. According to sources this rose was introduced by Thomas Smith of Daisy Hill Nursery fame, appearing in his 1912 catalogue, and is rumoured to be a 'founding' from a vicarage garden.
We think it is a beautiful rose and grow it on a shady fence that separates the lane, which leads to the back of the greenhouse, from our small potager. From a humble beginning, a small pot-grown specimen, it developed quite quickly into a good size – it can reach 20 feet by 15 feet as it approaches maturity. Graham Stuart Thomas stated that the rose is 'thorny, impenetrable, and impossible to prune' but we have managed to keep it in check by giving it a trim when it starts to become too invasive.
R. 'Rambling Rector' can be obtained from a good number of nurseries that provide a mail order service including well known suppliers such as David Austin (www.davidaustinroses.co.uk) or Peter Beales Roses (www.classicroses.co.uk) but a good place to start is your local garden centre or nursery as this is a popular rose.
Seed Propagation – Part 1.
Seed sowing is tremendously therapeutic, it is a truly wonderous experience to sow a seed and to watch the process. A tiny radical or root is the first part of life that pushes its way into the soil, from there the Cotyledons or seed leaves appear, take in moisture and light, acting as a food reserve for the seed to begin its journey to becoming a seedling, from there it grows its True Leaves and the Cotyledons have done their job.
Getting Started – The Tools of the Trade:
Clean tools make your seed sowing successful (Jeyes Fluid is a great product for everything in your potting shed). Seed trays, gardening gloves, sieves, dibbers, widgers, trowels, plant labels etc. can all spread disease so keeping them sparkling all the way through the season is essential.
What you will need to get started:
Cell trays, seed trays or root trainers are a choice in which you will sow your seeds.
Cell trays consist of individual modules for small seeds, medium or large seeds but not fine seeds. Being quite shallow, they should not be used for seeds that will grow long roots but the seedlings can be easily removed with a widger for easy potting on.
Root Trainers are deep, which means that you can leave your seeds in them for longer until they grow strong roots. This is important for those seeds that will eventually grow long tap roots like Daucus carota (Cow Parsley), Ammi majus, (Queen Ann’s Lace/Bishop’s Lace) and members of the Carrot family (Apiaceae). Even if your seeds do not produce long tap roots, Root Trainers are excellent for all seeds, except for dusty, very fine seeds. They can be cleaned and reused, lasting many years.
Shallow seed trays should only to be used for very fine seed such as Poppies, or Lobelia cardinalis, these seeds are almost like dust so, as it is impossible to pick out individual seeds, they can be mixed with horticultural sand or Vermiculite and spread onto the surface so you can see where they have been sown. Shallow seed trays are more work when it comes to ‘pricking out’ time, seedlings will invariably get tangled up with each other and the job is more tedious.
Seed Compost: Use fresh Seed Compost with John Innes recipe (usually Westland), this is low in nutrients, is a loam-based compost, provides the best environment for seeds, is free draining and fine in texture, anything too dense will lead to suffocation of seeds and germination rate will be low. Multi-purpose compost is too high in nutrients.
Equipment: To begin with and to make things less complicated, let us assume that the seeds you will be sowing will be sown in Spring and and so the growing environment will ideally be an unheated greenhouse, a cold frame or a sheltered spot in your garden with some protection like fleece, a polythene dome or a cover which will let in light and moisture but protect the seeds from frost.
There are other methods you can use if you don’t have a propagator, a sunny window indoors or a conservatory but actually, it is best to allow nature take its course and let the seeds germinate once the right temperature and light levels have arrived. If you can mimic what seeds do naturally – seeds drop from the parent plant in Autumn, fall to the soil and remain until the right conditions arrive and then they start the process without any help whatsoever. However, some people prefer to keep control over the position of the final planting and others are happy to let seeds naturalise, it is entirely up to the individual.
Seed Propagation – Part 2
Viability Test: There is no point in sowing seed that is not going to germinate so we need to check that what we sow is viable. If you buy seeds within their expiration date, you probably don’t need to do this test. If you have seeds left over from last year, you may want to test them before Spring sowing. There are a couple of tests, one is to place some seeds of each variety on wet kitchen paper and wait to see if they germinate, the problem with this is that it does not tell you if all the seeds are viable. The other option which is more reliable is to place your seeds into bowls of hot (not boiling water), write the name of the seeds beside each bowl so you know what seed is what. Ideally, leave for an hour, stirring occasionally or they can be left overnight. The seeds that float are not viable and can be discarded, those that sink to the bottom are viable. Using a fine sieve or a piece of muslin (for fine seeds) pour off all the water, spread seeds evenly onto a sheet of Baking Paper/Greaseproof Paper, this has a silicone surface and seeds will not stick. Do not use kitchen roll, Cling Film or towels as the seeds will stick as they dry and they can be damaged when trying to ease them free.
It is best to sow the seeds as soon as you can after the Viability Test, if possible while they are still wet. If this is not feasible, they can be allowed to dry and returned to their seed packet or brown envelope with a notation indicating they have been tested e.g. V and the date.
Breaking Seed Dormancy: Some seeds have hard seed coats, this enables them to survive in harsh conditions or in difficult environments. Normally, seeds’ dormancy is broken by heat and light but in extreme cases, hard coated seeds need some help, this is called Scarification. This can be achieved by rubbing the seeds on fine sandpaper or glasspaper or by nicking the seed coat with a sharp penknife but care needs to be taken, that you don’t go deep on the seed coat resulting in damage to the embryo. If wished, Hot Water Soaking can be used as well or instead as this allows water to penetrate the seed coat. Sowing of hard coated seeds should take place immediately after Scarification.
Another form of Breaking Seed Dormancy is called Stratification which is a combination of alternating Cold and Heat. There is also Vernilisation, where we mimic nature by sowing seeds in the Autumn and placing seeds in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame which allows them to go through a period of chilling.
If you wish, you can cold stratify seeds by mixing them with moist (not overly wet) seed compost and horticultural sand in a sealable plastic bag and place it in the fridge for the required treatment time. Don’t forget to label and date the bag. You need to check regularly for signs of sprouting and possible mould and making sure the compost does not dry out. Personally, I prefer to sow my seeds and leave them in the cold.
Warm Stratification is generally done using a heated propagator, seed packets will indicate the temperature seeds require for germination, usually 18-20 deg C.
Light germination: For seeds requiring Light for germination, these seeds will be very tiny and fine and need to be sown on the surface, Vermiculite and Horticultural Grit will allow light through while keeping moisture in. Stand seed trays in natural light but not in full sun. Always stand the seed tray in tap water, do not water from above as this can wash the seeds into clumps and the seedlings become tangled.
Dark germination, this goes for the majority of seeds and they will range in size from small to large. Seeds should be sown no deeper than twice their diameter. This depth will provide the dark needed but in some cases, a sheet of black plastic can be placed on top of the tray. Sowing deeper is not recommended as the seeds can rot. In some situations, large, flat seeds such as Cucumber and Pumpkin should be sown on their side. In the majority of cases, you don’t need to worry about which way round a seed should be sown, the new root will always follow gravity.
Seed Propagation – Part 3.
What to do when your seedlings appear:
Our job as seed growers is to ensure that we provide the right conditions for seeds such as water, light, oxygen and temperature so as new life emerges. The first set of leaves to emerge are Coltyledons or Seed Leaves, their role is to transmit food stored from the seed, absorb nourishment and photosynthesize until the next set of leaves known as True leaves appear. These true leaves are usually as right angles to the Cotyledons and the leaves often resemble the leaves of the adult plant. Once True leaves appear, this is a sign that the roots are developing and once the seedlings have grown 4 to 6 leaves, they are ready to be ‘pricked out’ to a 9cm pot.
If your seedlings are leaning towards the light and are becoming leggy, it means the light level is too low so turn the seed tray every day. If this persists, you may want to get some form of artificial light. One way to overcome this is not to sow your seeds too early in the year when the light levels are still low.
If you are using Root Trainers, your seedlings can be left in situ until they are more mature and then moved on to a 1litre pot.
Have your (disinfected) pots ready filled with Multi-Purpose Compost, they should be well watered and with your finger or a pencil, make a hole in the centre of the pot.
Pricking Out: Using a Widger or Dibber to ease the seedlings out of the tray Very important, when you are pricking out the seedlings, always hold them by the Cotyledons so as not to damage the True leaves that are still fragile and never touch the stem. The Cotyledons will have done their job and will die away in time. Always label each pot.
Damping Off: Damping Off is a fungus that is the seed growers’ nightmare that usually occurs in cold, damp weather, but there are ways to avoid it by a few careful housekeeping measures, particularly making sure that pots and utensils are disinfected. As your seedlings are on their way, they still need attention in the form of water, light, oxygen and temperature for photosynthesis. Always water sparingly from the bottom using tap water, avoid over-crowding, keeping out of direct sunlight, making sure air circulation and good ventilation is maintained to reduce humidity. In Damping Off, seeds can either fail to emerge or seedlings will collapse, in which case, the fungus can spread and there is no control or remedy. At the first sign of any fungus, remove and destroy the plant immediately to avoid cross contamination.
Keep your pots under cover until all danger of frost has passed, the plants are still tender at this stage and you should check the underside of the pots regularly to ensure that the roots are not becoming pot-bound, if so, they should be potted on to the next size pot.
When the weather has started to warm up and there is no frost in the forecast, you can start hardening off your plants, this means they will acclimatize to living outdoors and the plants will become stronger. Move them outside during the day for a couple of hours to start with and bring them under cover at night, gradually increasing the length of time they are outdoors, the easiest way to do this is to place the pots in crates.
Place them in a shaded area to prevent sun scorch on the tender leaves. Continue doing this for 7-10 days, provided there is no frost and after a week or so, if the weather is warm enough, they can be left out overnight. Be careful of slugs and snails as they adore these young juicy leaves. If you find that your plants are becoming ‘leggy’, pinch out the main growing tip with your nail, to allow the side shoots to develop.
SOME HANDY TRIVIA:
Annuals: Annual plants are those that grow from seed, produce flowers to attract pollinators, set seed and die after one season. An Annual will flower the following year if the seed it produced has germinated successfully, in which case, the seedlings can be lifted and moved to their final position.
Biennials: Biennial plants grow from seed in the first year, growing leaves and stems and flowering in the second year, set seed, then die. To achieve continuation of Biennials in your garden, seed should be sown in Autumn each year for flowering the following year.
Perennials: Perennials are plants that can be grown from seed or cuttings usually have a woody stem and can live for several years.
Herbaceous: Herbaceous plants can be biennials or perennials and consist of soft leaves and stems. They die back each year under ground when the weather gets cold and re-emerge when the light levels rise and the soil gets warmer.
Pricking Out means moving a seedling into a larger pot, this can be done several times as the plant grows.
Potting On means moving a plant into a larger pot, ideally the next size up and can be repeated.
Re-potting means taking the plant out of a pot, replacing the compost and if required, root trimming and replacing it back into the same pot. This phrase is misused frequently.
Cuttings: If you are growing plants from cuttings, use Cutting Compost and instead of Rooting Hormone powder use Cinnamon powder which is an amazing disinfectant that helps the cutting to form good roots and prevents damping off and other diseases. Never Ever dip the cutting into the container as this can spread infection, empty a small amount of powder onto a paper towel and dip the cutting into it making sure it is well covered and place in compost – discard the unused residue of Cinnamon powder.
The Chinese call them Mudan (Moudan) and they are recorded back as far as the Tang Dynasty 618-907AD, when they were the Emperor’s flower. Chinese tree peonies are the shrubby relation of the herbaceous peony well known in our gardens. They can grow up to three meters in height and width with many woody stems and flowers up to 25cm in diameter. A mature plant can have in excess of 100 blooms after 10 years growth. My best has been 63 blooms last year on the first specimen I bought.
The plant originated in China but the Japanese took to them in the eighth century. Chinese tree peonies are often double flowered but the Japanese preferred single flowers, so they developed slightly differently in each country.
Tree peonies are hardy mountain plants with a sensual fragrance, luscious colours and single blooms with spidery yellow stamens or packed double flowers. They love good garden soil, appreciate a compost mulch in early spring, do equally well in full sunshine or dappled shade with three to five hours sunshine. They don’t like wind like we experienced a week ago which shredded the petals and burnt the leaves.
There are nine species of tree peonies in the genus paeonia, but the most usual are paeonia × suffruticosa with plain or striped flowers and the largest number of cultivars, paeonia rockii, rock's peony, named after the botanist and plant hunter joseph rock. With a dramatic black basal blotch, paeonia ostii in pure white, paeonia delavayi which produces small flowers in a colour spectrum of yellow through orange to red and paeonia ludlowii, ludlow's tree peony, which has bright golden-yellow cupped flowers about 12cm in width.
I have been fascinated with these peonies since I bought my first one at a Rare and Special Plant Fair more than 12 years ago. Since then I have increased my collection to over 15 plants of suffruticosa and rockii cultivars. After a few failures with single stick like plants bought in garden centres, I have learnt to buy multi-stemmed plants at least 30cm tall with healthy foliage.
A well-developed plant is essential because tree peonies are grafted on to a herbaceous peony rootstock. When planting a tree peony, dig a large hole and plant at least 8cm below the graft. Backfill with soil, garden compost and bone meal or general fertilizer. This is the opposite to planting herbaceous peonies where the tops of tubers need to be almost visible on the soil’s surface. With the Mudan, the deep planting encourages the plant to grow its own roots. The grafted herbaceous roots will eventually die. The Chinese tree peony leaf is larger, less shiny and more palmate than its herbaceous relation so if you see a herbaceous leaf or thin stem emerging from the bottom of the plant remove it, otherwise the herbaceous will take over and the tree peony root die.
Different cultivars flower over a six-week period from late April to early June with each bloom lasting only a week or maybe eight days but they are so beautiful the short time does not matter.
I look at Chinese peony websites and drool but I confess that, with the times we are in, I am reluctant to purchase. Maybe some-day I will.
Spring gardening in the six acre restored Victorian Walled Garden in Kylemore Abbey is undoubtfully the busiest time of the year for us but also one of the most rewarding ones. Thousands of heritage seeds need to be sown in one of the restored glasshouses, starting at the end of January. After about three to four weeks all these little seedlings need to be pinched out and potted on. This crucial job is essential to keep up the standard of our Heritage Garden. Our spectrum of plant varieties is based up until 1901, the year Queen Victoria died. This fact means that all annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs, shrubs and trees consist up to 95% of the pre-1901 varieties. A lot of research and interacting with other Heritage Gardens is needed to achieve this.
Spring is delayed this year, due to the recent weeks of cold and wet weather. This fact suited us in one sense since it kept also the growth of weeds and lawns down.The spring display is nearly on its height now, mid-April. The first flush of Crocuses, Hyacinths and Narcissuses is over, replaced by Tulips, Muscaris, Wallflowers, Fritillarias, Bellis, Forget-me-nots and many more.
One of the earliest flowering Tulip varieties here in Kylemore is Tulip kaufmanniana, the Water-Lily Tulip, dating back to the mid-19th century. Mixed plantings of Muscaris, Snakes Head Fritillarias and Puschkinias work really well and create a lovely Easter display, both in formal and wild gardens. Strong contrast of colours was one of the aims back in Victorian times and we try to achieve this as much as possible each year in newly planted patterns.
The Kitchen Garden is also under full cultivation once again. The first early Heritage varieties of potatoes like ‘Epicure’, ‘May Queen’, ‘Duke of York’ and ‘Sharps Express’ were planted in ridges last week. Broadbean ’Bunyard Exhibition’, Pea ’Lincoln’ and ‘Blauwschokker’ and Mangetouts ’Carouby de Mausanne’ got planted out along trellises. We do a lot of interplanting with catch crops like Lettuces and Radishes. Seaweed, our own compost and rotted manure are the main fertilizers we are using. Different types of green manures like Crimson Clover, Phacelia and Mustard will be sown into empty plots.
Let’s hope the weather stays like now, we won’t have a shortage of work!
When you think of raiding and looting in history what springs to mind? Ancient relics or art perhaps, but how about tulips? Tulips, so widely available now, were once so highly sought after gardens were raided for the prized bulbs.
For us gardeners, is there anything to lift the spirits more than a swathe of tulips in the April sunshine? I think they’re the last hurrah of spring before the garden gives way to the glory of summer. Not all tulips are perennial; indeed, some of the more blousy tulips last only one season. Because of this, I tend to plant the more jazzy tulips in pots and the more perennial ones in the ground.
Tulips originated in Turkey so that’s a clue when planting. Plant the bulbs as deep as you can; good drainage and sunshine is a must for these garden delights. The real worker bees of the tulip world are from the Darwin Hybrid Group; for example, I have red and yellow 'Apeldoorn' planted for 16 years in the one spot under a copse of silver birch. Other tulips that come back year after year are dwarf cultivars such as ‘Stresa’ and ‘Red Riding Hood’, and the species Tulipa sylvestris. Tulip cultivars such as ‘Queen of Night’, ‘Van Eijk’, ‘China Pink’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Prinses Irene’ have also made a repeat appearance, while cultivars in the Viridiflora Group such as ‘Spring Green’ or ‘Virichic’ are reliable repeat bloomers here. As for the double tulips, I just plant in pots and enjoy their brief but glorious reign from April to May.
Website development: Neal Walsh Web Solutions