4 November 2011

New species - bagged but ready to go

On the last Sunday Workday we were trying to sort out one of the garden's 'toilet' corners - these spots are a nuisance but we have to address these as best we can.  The corner in question is next to the green leaf-bins, under the horse chestnut tree and it is dark and very dry.  Last autumn a number of holly saplings were planted but the combination of hard growing conditions and the physical damage caused by squatting shitters had done for these.  When a big Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica, was anonymously donated earlier in the year, roots wrapped in a black plastic bag, I was unsure where to plant it so it has sat, rather neglected, outside the office.  These are tough shrubs, not to everyones taste, but are notorious for their ability to cope with difficult dry, shaded, conditions. Ideal for this corner.

The usual big planting hole with lots of added compost was dug and the laurel firmly planted.  The loose compost was shaken out of the bag - revealing this bright eyed little fellow...

I am a big toad fan.  You will probably think this is because of their slug-eating, pest-controlling ways. Wrong!  It is because of; the perfect balance of comedy and dignity in their expression, that they swallow their food using their eyeballs to push the food down (how cool is that!), and they defend themselves from being picked up by emptying their bladder all over your hands (how silly is that?!)  They are wonderful!

We do not have toads at the Phoenix, their wandering ways would mean they would soon get pancaked in the road.  Frogs are much more sedentary so can survive here.  This little fellow after being photographed, videoed and fed a worm (very hungry after the summer in a bag) went off to be re-homed in the suburbs.

Back to the laurel.  1 day later it is broken in half with a large turd amongst the broken branches.  Blighters!

12 July 2011

ant nuptials

My childhood sugar-water/magnifying glass memories have been telling me that when the mounds of ant-earth get that big it's gonna happen.  It did, so today I was excited by the ants.  Some things just don't change.

Today the combination of warmth and humidity triggered the ants into action.  They have been waiting  for the conditions to be just right to take to the sky in a mass mating flight.  In the garden and across London, countless fat-bodied virgin-queens synchronised their departures to take the air with equally countless small winged males.  As they rush to the top of grass stalks for lift off, the nests swarm with frantic workers.  The slightest disturbance drives them into a frenzy - they bravely attack legs.   

By simultaneously launching en-masse the odds are improved for a lucky few to avoid the army of hungry beaks and mouths all ready to take a toll (the wren was busy).  After mating, the female ants  drop to the ground (the males soon die), chew their own wings off and frantically search for a place to dig.  If lucky and on soft ground they soon disappear underground, where if nothing gets them, they  excavate a small cavity, the beginnings of a new nest.  They survive by re-absorbing their redundant wing muscles, just living off these reserves as they raise the first few workers.  The first workers will leave the nest the following spring to search for food.  A new colony will take years to grow to maturity and to produce the fertile winged forms.  With lots of luck the queens may live for 20 years or more.  

Good luck my beauties! 

14 June 2011

open squares weekend - 11th & 12th June

Every June the garden takes part in London Open Garden Squares Weekend.  The weekend is organised by London Parks and Gardens Trust and is a great opportunity to explore many of London's private gardens - the majority of the participating gardens are private squares and this is the only opportunity for non-key holders to have a look round.  The Phoenix, being open access every day of the year, closes to the general public for the weekend and is only open to Open Squares ticket holders.  This year was very busy with over 300 visitors on the Saturday alone, so it is a great opportunity for garden volunteers to show off the results of all the hard work they do throughout the year to keep the Phoenix Garden running.  The Open Squares visitors are viewing the garden alongside other gardens, many that have planting budgets we can only dream of, so it is good to get all the feedback and to hear how we stand up to the competition.  Many visitors are amazed that the garden is open to the public as a matter of course and there are many compliments regarding the planting and the design - of course I already know we are the best! Garden volunteers also run a refreshments tent selling teas, coffees and home-made cakes, and they were run off their feet keeping up with demand!

A long day greeting 300 visitors, and hearing a litany of complaints from those too tight to support 'their' charity garden, has exhausted the gatekeeper!  I should probably know better by now but I am still surprised at the unpleasantness freely directed towards garden volunteers by those unwilling to pay the £3 entrance fee for the day; "but this is MY garden you effing middle-class wanker!".  
I continue to be amazed at the commitment of the volunteer team who keep on running fund raising events such as these for such little thanks, so here is a Big Thank You to: Jane, Alex, Ray, Craig, Peter, Elizabeth, Graziella, Sharon & Pauline, who made the weekend such a success.

3 June 2011

garden roses

I have been having lots of odd weather/climate change conversations recently, what with it being such a dry and early year (so you know, I am; yes, climate is changing - no, an early spring doesn't prove it).  Whatever the reason the roses are out well before they usually are and are going over quickly.  Get them while they last, they are looking great.

The roses here are a mix of odds and sods from yesteryear with a few new ones planted over the past few years.  The Phoenix is being managed as a natural garden and they are probably not first class shrubs for wildlife but in full bloom they bring a welcome touch of luxury and they are useful protectors for other plants - they are spikey and prevent in-bed-intruders.  None of the roses here get any other treatment than the occasional dollop of compost, regular deadheading of repeat flowerers and a prune and tie-in in winter.  No sprays, no extra food and no extra water.  A couple of them get hit each year with blackspot, the fungal bane of rose growers, but they seem none the worse for this.  Powdery mildew silvers leaves and twists new growth later in the season but it seems to do no lasting damage.  I find them tough and they grow and flower well in the rubble soil here.

'Iceberg' white, repeat flowers well, unscented. 
Unnamed (possibly 'Felicia'), soft pink, fantastic fragrance.
I lost the label of this, one of the David Austin English roses (all are over-rated I think), great when first out, fades badly.
50p bargain bin, good scent, very spiny flower stems, blighter to deadhead, blackspot prone. 
50p bargain bin, nasty shade of pink, blackspot prone.
 50p bargain bin, tall red blooms, no scent I can detect, repeats non-stop, lovely red foliage in early spring.
Climbing red rose, good first flush of bloom, gets too dry here (it's under the tulip tree) to flower again, very thorny.
 Zephirine Drouhine, pink, scented, thornless, mildew-prone.
'Pilgrim Climbing', I like it when the buds first open,
 less so when fully open (too many petals for my taste), and I can't detect the scent,
but the bush has thickened nicely up the railings at the North end.  Another English Rose. Not as yellow as I hoped it would be but disease free.
  'Ballerina' semi-double, soft pink, repeat flowers well, tough, tough, tough.
 Along the front railings this vigorous white rambler throws it's thorny stems like living barbed wire.  In full flower the fragrance battles the ammonia stink in this pee-soaked corner.  Mildew gets hold every year but it still manages to grow new 3m stems each year.
Tied in during winter it flowers only once in a great burst and garlands the rails with this glorious display.  I think it is 'Rambling Rector' - rather apt at the foot of the Churchyard steps.
'Francis E Lester' apple-blossom single flowers with a good fragrance, followed by ornamental pea-sized red hips.  Covered in aphids early in the season it shrugs these off undamaged and is my favourite medium sized rambler, growing to 5m.
And the very best is this three year old giant rambler, Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate', with fragrant single cream flowers with yellow stamens.  This is growing to go up the walnut tree where it should eventually hang great trails of blossom from top to bottom.  That's the idea anyway, it is a monstrously big rose and I may regret it in the long term but for now I just love it!
For wildlife the garden roses are not the very best of shrubs but they are not the worse by far. The single roses will all be better as the open flowers are easy to access - only fat bumblebees can manage to muscle themselves into the centre of double blooms - the small red hips of Francis E Lester and Kiftsgate are eaten by birds through the winter months, the leaves of all are used by leafcutter bees to line their nests, rose sawfly grubs eat the leaves to skeletons, greenfly wait to be eaten while sucking rose sap and deep in the flowers camouflaged hunters, like crab spiders, lay in wait for the unwary. 

If you sniff at the roses, do mind your nose - you could end up like this hoverfly!

29 April 2011

a bit of a mouthful

Grown from a few seeds picked up from the path at the Chelsea Physic Garden a couple of years back, there are three plants of the unusual Madeiran endemic Black Parsley, Melanoselinum decipiens, growing at the Phoenix.  Apart from it's tongue twisting latin name it has a reputation for being a grand architectural rarity so I was pleased to get hold of it.  The big glossy green cut leaves held in a rosette atop a thick stem ringed with pale leaf scars have filled a space and been impervious to the dry site.  In better soils than here it can grow enormous and reach 3m at flowering, these are only half that height.  It is monocarpic, meaning it spends a number of years building up enough strength before putting all it's energies into flowering and seeding before dying.  After enjoying the anticipation for three years I find I am disappointed as the first one to flower shows me it's true colours - it's just not like the pretty photo-fakery on the web!

I liked it early in the year when the new bronzed foliage unfurled.  
I liked it as the candelabra of stems grew as it readied itself to flower.
I liked the promise of pink in the piped-icing buds.
 I liked the ruff of foliage beneath each umbel of flowers.
But I do not like the flowers now they've opened, up close they are off-white and from a distance they just look dirty.  I am under-whelmed.
The bugs don't agree with me - each head seeths with feasting micro-bees and pollen beetles.  I am hoping the dark seed heads that give it it's common name are more to my taste as I have no doubt it plans to seed about as generously as the other umbels, cow parsley and alexanders, do.  The jury is still out.

21 April 2011

planting workshops

I have been running a series of planting workshops in the garden on Wednesday evenings.  The sessions have covered a range of topics; beansprouts and salad leaves, tomatoes and dwarf beans, wildflower pots, taking cuttings and houseplants.  At the workshops I 'show & tell', then the group gets to have a go themselves and take the results away to grow at home.  
The beansprout kits.  A taster selection of mung bean, spicy fenugreek and alfalfa,
the group smiles for the camera and at my confident 'you can't fail with these!" - and they didn't.
Salad leaves being sown in pots.  A cut and come again mix of salad leaves, 'Saladisi', and rocket.
The houseplants; offsets of the succulent Lace Aloe (Aloe aristata), small Begonia plants and tubers of a decorative Chinese yam.  Not much to look at at the moment but there will be soon.
 The cuttings workshop; softwood cuttings of Blackcurrant Sage, South African Daisy Bush and Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'.  Pots of cuttings and mini-greenhouses in hand, the group pose - it's obligatory!

And photos emailed from group members show the results;
 Alfalfa sprouts - enough for a salad.
Cornfield annuals and cuttings.
Healthy courgette seedlings.

It has been great to see there's been so much success and the confidence of the group to grow new things has clearly increased.  We will be holding another series of workshops once I work out just what we'll be doing.  There have been requests from the group for; hot and sunny/windowsills and balconies,  deep shade/basement flats and growing plants from pips and stones.  For the last they may have to bring their own pips - I don't think everyone will want my slobber over everything.
Details on the garden website soon.

vegetables at wardour house

Popped over to Wardour House to get some vegetables started in the two veg planters.  We planted some small lettuce plants in green and red,  got the tomato plants in and a courgette.  Seeds were sown for carrots, pot marjoram and dwarf 'Hestia' runner beans.  Nasturtiums too - usually grown just for their pretty flowers, both the flowers and leaves are edible too, but be warned they are mustard hot! 
Pushing in runner beans,
 is easy to do.
Hope I get invited when they harvest!