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September sees our expert busy with Chelsea preparations, relining her garden pond and playing with a new propagating toy – while the rain boosts some favourite magenta blooms
Two calves – a heifer and a bull – were born on our farm this week. One of the joys of our Dexter cows is their ability to calve outside on their own. We watch them closely when the due date arrives – though as the bull was with them for a good three months, that date was a moveable feast.
The Dexters do well on our poor grazing – a stony old medieval village – and as they are pretty small, the land never gets poached (overtrodden and muddy in wet winter weather).
Grass-fed, home-grown organic beef is a real luxury. I believe Dexter is second only to Kobe – and a top chef agreed with me when I gave him a steak.
At home I am busy preening some plants to fill four large containers that will be displayed on a stand at Chelsea Flower Show for Horatio’s Garden, which creates gardens at NHS spinal injury centres. I am trying to use the charity’s brand colours – lime and mauve – and currently have dahlias and amaranthus enjoying the sunshine outside my greenhouse.
I feel for designer Tom Massey, who is creating a fully organic show garden on the event’s Main Avenue inspired by one at Yeo Valley farm in Somerset: this means all the plants he is using (grown by Mark Straver of nursery Hortus Loci), plus the pots (all recyclable rice or taupe) and compost are organic. It is the first Chelsea show garden to be approved by the Soil Association.
When I spoke to Massey he was fretting a little – his trees are starting to look autumnal and some of the plants are looking a wee bit chewed. But surely if the RHS wants us to be more organic, it cannot mark down the odd nibbled leaf: we have to move our horizons and embrace this.
The garden will feature a stream, Mendip stone and pollarded willows. Massey worked on the design with Sarah Mead, who created the original Yeo Valley organic garden in Somerset.
There will only be six judged show gardens at this year’s event (Sept 21-26), but it will be fascinating to see the colours of late summer and to have a rest from alliums and cow parsley.
NEW KIT FOR CUTTINGS
I am always propagating new plants, so I recently branched out and bought a hydropod from gardening equipment firm Two Wests & Elliott Ltd. Place the cuttings in the sponge discs inside the pod, add water and this nifty piece of kit will spray a constant mist – warmed to a range of possible temperatures – over the base of the cuttings to maintain perfect moisture levels without waterlogging.
It seems the combination of heat and mist really speeds up root development and it can be used for hardwood or softwood cuttings. Because I am greedy and my version only has 20 discs, I slipped five or so cuttings into each disc (instead of one each) and I can’t see it causing a problem. We shall see.
I am currently using this new toy to root my favourite hydrangea – an unusual one, H. involucrata ‘Hortensis’ – which I got from a cutting. It has a long flowering period from mid to late summer. The large, nut-shaped buds are enclosed in bracts that open to white drooping racemes, which gradually turn to apricot pink. The leaves look rather like dark green suede and the whole slowly grows to a metre or so in height. You might not think it was a hydrangea at all on first encountering it. Other current occupants are plumbago (always quick and easy), my favourite Solanum jasminoides (a semi-evergreen climber with beautiful white, lilac- tinged, scented flowers) and the new, blight-resistant boxwood ‘Heritage’.
Normally I just root box with no heat or mist, but I am experimenting to see how this might speed up the process as it often takes me until the following spring to have nicely rooted liners from September cuttings.
I recommend anyone wanting to bulk up their garden with really special plants to get to work propagating now: you could have a cold frame or greenhouse stocked full of beautifully rooted liners next spring.
I like a massive supply of basil all year round. I cheat though: I buy a couple of pots online with my food shop and then split them up into mini clumps of two to five plants (having watered them well first). The cost of a supermarket pot is around £1.20 – which is cheaper than a packet of seed.
I aim to keep as much compost on their roots as possible, then move them in small clumps into bigger pots with fresh multi-purpose compost. I put about three clumps quite widely spaced into each 8in pot. These then go into my galvanised steel window sill trays in the kitchen. In total I probably replace them about three times a year.
If you don’t re-pot the supermarket plants quickly, however, they die incredibly fast as the suppliers can cram around 40 plants into a small pot.
Apart from using the basil to make pesto – which can not only be used as a sauce for pasta but is also great on the top of thick winter soups, mixed into arborio rice and added to lamb – I love the leaves chopped in many salads in addition to the obvious traditional caprese salad.
Checking out the scientific search engine Google Scholar, I see basil also helps boost the immune system, helps oral and skin health and improves mental performance.
A CRESS CURE FOR GREEN WATER
I have just relined my pool as there was a leak I couldn’t patch. I used a 1mm-thick EPDM synthetic rubber liner (which is often sold as butyl rubber, though it almost invariably isn’t) from worldofwater.com.
If you fill a pond in warm weather, the water may initially turn green, as the aquatic planting has to get into its stride and develop a healthy balance. Listening to my favourite horticultural podcast, A Week in the Garden with Peter Seabrook, however, I was reminded of a great tip for fixing this.
Take a bunch of watercress, put it in a glass of water till it roots (usually two-three days) then place the plants in the pool, planting them near the surface in gravel or poor subsoil (good soil only encourages the problem). Watercress thrives on nitrogen, so presumably it removes excess nitrogen from the water as it grows, thus helping to reduce algal blooms.
For the kitchen, I have a raised bed of watercress in the vegetable garden where it thrives growing in soil.
Dahlias top the colour charts
My dahlias have really benefited from the high rainfall we had earlier in the summer, which boosted their growth in my thin, dry soil. My favourite – the deep purple ‘Thomas A. Edison’ – stands out beautifully against my newly painted exterior windows and doors. The French grey with a hint of violet – a Zinsser paint bought from Brewers – works well with my favourite strong magenta-toned planting
I left most of my dahlias in situ last winter but lifted one clump for insurance. While chatting to Louise Danks, who manages the National Collection (she grows 1,700 different varieties and 22 species), she stressed that it is the winter wet they don’t like. With our unpredictable winter rainfall, it is always worth lifting the odd clump. She, like me, always gives dahlias a thick mulch (I do 8in) in early winter, both to feed and protect. Slugs can be a pain – I use ferric phosphate pellets if necessary
The advantage of lifting dahlias is that you can force them on earlier; the disadvantage is that you can lose them if you let them dry out too much. I tend to put tubers in a crate, throw compost on top and check them for moisture content now and again – they should be kept just very slightly moist
Dahlias have been growing in popularity over the past 10 years. My niece Jessica recently sent me photos of hers: she’s a novice gardener, but they looked amazing. They are one of the easiest, but showiest plants to grow
I rooted cuttings of ‘Bishop of Canterbury’ this spring and from those tiny plugs now have whopping, colourful clumps. Seed and division are other great ways to increase your stock. As for the hottest varieties, Louise Danks says ‘Café au Lait’ has been big for a few years, but it is not really my tasse de thé – give me something less subtle, such as ‘Black Jack’
Visit Bunny Guinness on YouTube for her latest videos: Charles Dowding at Hampton Court and “A Beautiful Cutting Garden & How To Make Cut Flowers Last”. Also find her on Instagram @bunny.guinness
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