Of Russian Giants and toasted tomatoes…

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Sunflower Russian Giant

In 2013, you may recall that we grew a bed of sunflowers from a packet of pet shop bird seed. We got some excellent blooms but the plants were quite short – around 3-4 feet. This of course might have been down to a lack of moisture during their formative stages but the seed was unlikely to have had much pedigree!

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The Sunflower border. The wheel-barrow gives a sense of scale

This year we pushed the boat out and purchased some Russian Giant sunflower seeds from Thompson and Morgan.

While the packet promised plants growing up to 10 feet with 12 inch blooms, we took this with a pinch of salt, as one does. Maybe in the south of England in a sheltered spot in top quality soil with weekly feeds of tomato fertiliser – perhaps? Not a bit of it, we truly did get plants if not ten feet tall, very nearly that height, with, yes, 12 inch blooms. Granted they were grown in our Walled Garden in full sun but the only fertiliser they received was a single application of pelleted chicken manure. Needless to say, these Russian Giants will be making a welcome return in 2015.

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Dahlia Bishops Children surrounded by the feathery foliage and purple blooms of Cosmos

And yes, the weather was good this past year, apart from August when it went curiously autumnal, as it has a tendency to do during the Edinburgh Festival, reverting to summer in early September. We had a long, very mild autumn, with dahlias blooming and butterflies fluttering by well into December – very unusual. Talking of dahlias, last winter was so mild that a good percentage of the Bishops Children tubers survived in the ground to come up anew in May. This is very unusual for the east of Scotland, leaving us with a surfeit of dahlia plants (having grown the usual quantity this spring anticipating no resurgence of the 2013 generation).

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The September border at the Drying Green (previously known as the Kitchen Garden) with the butterfly attractants of Verbena bonariensis and Dahlia Bishops Children with spent blooms of Buddleia in the foreground

We’ve had quite a good spring and summer too, evidenced by lower than usual water levels in the Lily Pond. I don’t remember quite so many butterflies as this year, with extraordinary numbers clustering on the Buddleias and Verbena bonariensis during August, including a Comma, rare in these parts, which was rather exciting. We also had the wonderful Dragonflies laying their eggs in the Pond this summer – surely the natural world’s prototype of the Chinook Helicopter.

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Sweet Peas, with photo-bombing Dahlia!

IMG_2262Summer bedding performed well too, with some good carpets of Mesembryanthemums taking their customary place between the Hybrid Tea roses and one of the best seasons for Sweet Pea which provided scented weekly vase-fulls for the house from early July right through to late November.

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Some over-wintering residents in the Greenhouse: Echium ‘Pride of Madeira’, corkscrew- trained Olive and Canary Island Palm

Sadly there was a casualty to all this warmth, though. Some super-warm days in June ‘toasted’ our greenhouse tomatoes, despite reasonable ventilation, and while we did everything we could to keep the plants going for the rest of the summer, they never really recovered and a lot of the fruit succumbed to blossom end rot. I’d always thought of tomatoes as being able to take any amount of heat – clearly not! Interestingly, other co-habitees in the greenhouse, including the ‘Pride of Madeira’ Echiums and Agapanthus ‘Headbourne Hybrids’, sown last year, were less affected, although the Agapanthus did go a little limp for a few days!

 

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Seeds of Discovery

In a month or two’s time or so, the seed-sowing season begins. Here at the Scottish Country Garden, we wait until the sun’s rays provide a decent heat in the greenhouse, which usually means getting going mid-March to early April.

This year’s seed-order comprises a mixture of the instant (hardy annuals, flowering this year) and the longer-term – hardy perennials. We try to grow all our perennials from seed, if we can. This year, some of the things we’re going to have a shot at include:

Aquilegia x hybrida ‘Firecracker’: we grew Aquilegias a couple of years ago from seed and they provided a long-lasting and very colourful show. A real cottage-garden favourite, I wouldn’t be without them. Even their early spring foliage emerging from the ground cheers me up!  This one should inject some oomph into the borders!

Cyclamen hederifolium ‘Mixed’: the marvellous little autumn flowering Cyclamen File:Cyclamen hederifolium Flowers BotGardBln0906a.jpgwhich you can naturalise. We might try some of these at the foot of our free-standing apple trees.

File:Dierama pulcherrimum 1.JPGDierama pulcherrima ‘Slieve Donard Hybrids’, the “Angel’s Fishing Rods”, this variety originating from the marvellous Irish Garden of the same name. I’m not sure how easy these will be to grow, but even if we can germinate a few, that will be well worth it.

Echinops ritro subsp. RuthenicusEchinops_t&m use only : you might have worked out that we’re quite a fan of thistles here! This is the blue, spikey thistle, a herbaceous classic which I grew up with but which we don’t have here, yet!

File:Meconopsis grandis1.jpgMeconopsis grandis: the iconic Himalayan Blue Poppy which does very well in the wetter, milder west of Scotland. We’re going to see if we can grow this in our shade border but Meconopsis does have a reputation for being temperamental and short-lived! But it’s a real topper and we’re going to have a go!

We’re also going to try Astilbe arendsii ‘Showstar’with its wonderful ferny spring foliage, and more Candelabra primulasFile:Fairhaven Water Gardens 2 - geograph.org.uk - 251605.jpg in the shade border too. We tried to grow the latter last year but it had a poor germination rate, so I’m going to start them off sooner to see if this helps.

Phormium ‘Rainbow Striped Hybrids’: no, I didn’t know you could get seed for them either, but you can (Thompson and Morgan are our suppliers). I really like the tall strappy leaves which grow to 5 to 8 feet. They have a real jungley feel, augmented by the exotic-looking flowers come out on long poles in the spring.

I used to think that Agapanthus only grew in the warmer south of England but, perhaps helped by a combination of global warming and plant breeding, they can now be grown up here in Scotland, so we’re having a shot at ‘Headbourne Hybrids’ from seed. Fond memories of these growing in the Walled Garden at Alnwick, Northumberland, one of my favourite gardens, and by the side of the roads growing wild on the island of Madeira.

Talking of Madeira, and this is being a bit ambitious, we thought we’d have a go at the “Pride of Madeira”, Echium fastuosum.File:Close-up of a "Pride of Madeira".jpg This will be a challenge as the south east of Scotland has a slightly different climate from the garden island in the Atlantic! Echium is a half-hardy biennial so we will need to plant it in a warm, south-facing alcove and give it some frost protection in the winter. If we succeed, our prize will be towers of purple-blue flowers reaching 12 feet! Dust of dreams indeed…

(Special thanks to Thompson & Morgan Ltd. for their permission to use certain images in this post)

Dust of dreams

Just placed my next year’s seed order with Thompson and Morgan (http://www.thompson-morgan.com/). Seed catalogues are the gardener’s equivalent of the holiday brochures – they seem to radiate the warmth of a summer day and help to transport us through the cold and darkness of winter.

Here at the Scottish Country Garden, we try to grow as much as we can from seed (annuals, perennials, veg and herbs), and T&M have an excellent selection of perennials to choose from. They also have some wonderful discount offers from time to time too if you order online. Worth joining their email list just for this!

imageSeeds are always a leap of faith and it can be hard to reconcile the seductively colourful pictures on the outside of the packet with the little pinch of brown dust within, but most times the latter does indeed transform into the former! This past spring was rather cooimagel, damp and dark in Scotland with the result that while our seed germinated quite well, some succumbed to damping off disease. Our greenhouse is not heated so we are reliant on solar power, which wasn’t much in evidence during 2012!

Despite this, though, we now have a nice little brood of Hostas, Acanthus (Bears’ Breeches), Kniphofia (red hot pokers), Morina, Thalictrum, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ and Candelabra Primulas ready to plant out next year, with a batch of Joe- Pye Weed (Eupatorium) and Pennisetum ‘Tall Feathers’ grasses already planted in situ.

I think more patience is needed with perennial seedlings than annuals (don’t throw out the trays for at least a year they say, and in some cases two, in case they are slow germinators!) and I think you just have to accept that germination may be variable, or in a couple of cases with us last year, non-existent! (I rather ambitiously thought I’d have a go at growing acers from seed; as per instructions, they’ve been in the greenhouse, in the fridge (to simulate winter) and are now back in the greenhouse again.   Now we’re going into proper winter, so if that doesn’t leave them totally confused, I don’t know what will! That said, I’m still kind of hopeful they may appear next spring!) Perennials don’t have the same rate of growth as annuals but it’s image

hugely more satisfying to grow your own than buying a ready-grown plant from a garden centre. If you’ve got a bit of space to fill, growing from seed protects the bank account too (that’s the Scot in me), allowing you to plant drifts of the same species to eye-catching effect!

So what have I ordered for next year? Ah, well, we’ll leave that for a future post!