As seen at Petworth House, West Sussex
I’ve been working on an interesting little project lately in Dorset, looking after a newly-designed garden which is learning to settle back in to its landscape after some fairly major re-sculpting of a steep hillside into handsome stone-built terraces.
The (extremely nice) owners are keen gardeners but not knowledgeable, so it’s up to me to come up with solutions to the inevitable little problems that crop up when you drop a garden onto a hillside and leave the evolution into maturity till afterwards.
The owners mentioned to me that three little ornamental Japanese cherries planted on one of the terraces hadn’t been thriving this summer. We worked through the usual possible ailments: drought in this year’s relatively dry summer, lack of shelter (the prevailing wind blows directly onto this terrace), silverleaf disease.
But then I went and actually looked at them, close-up. And it was blindingly obvious what the problem was: the above (bar the silverleaf) may have played their part but the clincher was the way these trees have been staked.
It’s hard to know where to start.
Bamboo canes. Far too weak, flimsy and flexible to hold a growing tree steady against gales and the knocks and bumps of everyday life. They weren’t stuck into the ground all that deeply either – you could flap them about with one hand. No support whatsoever.
That flexitie. I have issues with this stuff for all sorts of reasons: but in this case, again, it’s far too stretchy for holding a young tree in position. It’s also tied so loosely around the tree that it’s simply not doing its job.
All this meant these little trees might just as well have been planted without stakes at all. And you could see the damage: the root balls were clearly lifting out of the ground.
The reason you stake a tree while it’s getting established is to hold the rootball firmly in place. If you don’t, when the top of the tree whips about in the wind it will also pull at the rootball, which (because you haven’t staked it properly) is free to move within the soil. That rips away those delicate feeder roots a tree puts out to explore and colonise the surrounding soil, effectively repeatedly preventing the roots from anchoring the tree in the ground. This keeps the root ball loose, and because the tree can’t develop a better root system than it had in the pot, it cannot grow. That’s why these trees were suffering.
So here’s what I did:
This is a proper tree stake: around 7.5cm (3″) diameter, sturdy round wooden pole about 1.5m (5ft) long (you can use squared timber, as long as it’s good and robust). It dwarfs the tree trunk a little but that’s the point: it’s meant to be stronger.
I’ve driven it in to the ground with a mallet at a 45° angle, firmly enough that you can’t move it easily by hand. Opinion is divided about whether stakes should be parallel with the trunk to about halfway up, or like this: I’ve always favoured the 45° approach as it holds the rootball while letting the top of the tree move, and you’re driving it in a little way away from the rootball itself so you don’t have to damage any roots by sinking it closer to the trunk.
You’ll notice it’s pointing away from the wall, into the wind: this is deliberate. When the wind blows at this tree, the force is pushing the tree against the stake’s anchor, so it shouldn’t move. If I’d pointed it the other way (or straight upwards) the wind is effectively pulling at the tree rather than pushing it into the stake – much less stable.
And last but not least: a proper, collared tree tie. This holds snugly around the trunk and around the stake, the collar making sure the two don’t rub, and is stretchy enough to allow growth but not stretchy enough to give in to the wind. I’ll be checking that tie each summer as the trees grow and loosening it off if it’s needed: hopefully, in a couple of seasons’ time, this tree will be fully recovered from its bad start, well rooted and growing on so strongly I can pull the stake out and let it strike out on its own.
There are some garden plants which can’t make up their mind where they belong. Kitchen garden? Or flower borders?
The answer, almost always, is both. I’m a big fan of including ornamental-but-edible plants in the bit of the garden that isn’t explicitly for growing food: things like the fuchsias I harvest for their berries, or the lavenders and scented-leaf pelargoniums which on the rare occasions I have time and opportunity to channel my inner domestic goddess I use for flavouring cookie dough.
Crabapples fall firmly into this territory. They are pretty little garden trees, with lovely spring blossom and pretty good autumn colour too. They behave themselves impeccably, never outgrowing their space and needing little pruning: the worst you can say of them is that they have a bit of a meh outline that can look downright scruffy if you like your gardens architecturally pleasing. But in a wild garden like mine, that’s fine.
We inherited a crab with the garden but it has never, until this year, fruited. I’m not sure what’s brought on its current outburst of generosity: perhaps it’s because I pruned the top out last year to give it a slightly better shape and pulled off the curtain of Clematis montana that had – as it does most years – leapt across from the fence over which it grows rampantly alongside to climb up and over the crabapple as well. The montana is a lovely plant, and I forgive it everything each May when it smothers said fence (about 20ft long) with a confection of flowers so dense you can’t see the foliage underneath. But it’s sometimes hard to keep its ambitions for world domination in check.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s been a good year for apples: the Devonshire Quarrenden in the veg garden has been prolific this season, too. But anyway: for the first time the ground beneath was carpeted with little miniature apples. Pound after pound of them. They’re gorgeous.
I’m pretty sure our crab is a ‘John Downie’, the variety most often recommended if you want the best fruit: and I can vouch for its prolific harvest of large (2-3″) fruits. They are flushed red, but cook to a honey yellow.
For brilliant red crabapple jelly, you might try ‘Red Sentinel’, particularly lovely as the (smaller) fruits glow so bewitchingly against the foliage in autumn. ‘Golden Hornet’ I’m not so fond of: there was one in the gardens at Bicton College when I was studying there and its fruits turn an unappetising brown when overripe, still on the tree. It doesn’t, as they say in the trade, die well.
These are the three I have personal experience of: I’m told ‘Gorgeous’ and ‘Dolgo’ are better choices if you like your crabapple Jelly scarlet as the red fruits are somewhat larger than ‘Red Sentinel’. Crabs are naturally high in pectin and mix well with other fruits, so if you’re making jelly or jam, add a few crabapples to help it set: hedgerow jelly, made of crabapples and blackberries, is sublime. And as if that weren’t enough on the usefulness scale: crabapples will also pollinate domestic apples, so if you don’t have room for two full-sized apple trees, try one apple tree and one crabapple instead. They can even be espalier-trained if you only have a fence to spare. Versatile or what.
Any idea what this is?
They come in clusters, too:
My first thought was, ah – it’s a gall. The leaves are of course obviously somewhat chewed. But when you pick them off they’re rock hard – and they have hollow innards. And besides, birch gall looks like this, which is not at all the same thing.
I was a little sad to find that it wasn’t the rather wonderfully named silk button spangle galls: they look like this:
(the pic is from the compellingly interesting Tree Blog which is following the lives of about 25 trees from seed up, and has an alarmingly comprehensive selection of disease-related pictures to show for it. It actually made me wonder how any tree actually makes it to maturity.)
So – any ideas? I’m still with the galls idea, but am intrigued to know what might have caused this and how. They’re very pretty, but clearly not doing the tree any good at all.
Over to you?
I was wandering through the woods walking the dog, grinning foolishly to myself while kicking the mounting piles of autumn leaves with every step (do you ever grow out of that, I wonder?). Then I happened to look up at the sky and saw that though it’s not even mid-November yet, the branches are already bare against the blue.
It’s been a fabulous autumn – something to do with the early frost and wet weather I believe – but all too short-lived. So I ran out with my camera as soon as I got back to take a few pics before it all disappears.
The Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ outside my bedroom window is one I’ve raved about before – it’s been spectacular this year, real fireworks every morning when I draw the curtains.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was an example of lovely autumn colour. It’s a horse chestnut tree not far from my front door.
Around here all the horse chestnuts took on an autumn colour in about August – you could tell which trees in a hedgerow were chestnuts as they were the only ones which were bright yellow. It was the same story last year. If you look more closely at the leaves you can see the colouring isn’t anything to do with autumn at all.
This is chestnut leaf miner damage. It’s caused by the larva of a moth which has become absolutely rampant in the south-east of England. It comes from southern Europe, and until recently was minding its own business over there, but in 2002 the first ones crossed the water and turned up here. I believe it’s now making its way north.
The Forestry Commission are keeping an eye on it, and they’ve asked people to let them know if it appears in places where it hasn’t yet been seen (a few more dots are ominously appearing on their map each year). Apparently, dramatic though it looks, it doesn’t do any damage to the tree, though if it appears at the same time as a nasty bark disease called bleeding canker the combination can be fatal.
It seems to me, though, that if you completely defoliate a tree every year for a number of years, it can’t do it much good in the long run. I love horse chestnuts – like most people I played conkers as a kid, and I love the fact that they’re so big and strong and sort of ancient English forest-y. They’re the sort of trees you use as landmarks, the sort of trees you rely on for your sense of identity and place. So to see them all looking so sick, so early in the year, makes me fear for their future. It feels all wrong, like daffodils in December. If this is global warming, you can keep it.
Yes, I know it’s long past magnolia season but I thought I’d just recall for everyone just how lovely these trees are. My excuse is that I’ve been having a bit of a magnolia fest this year, as not only did I get to write a whole article about them which included talking to some of the country’s best growers and enthusiasts but also got to see the National Collection down in Caerhays which got me totally smitten – especially this fine specimen.
Well, just a few days after I got back from Cornwall I was over at Kew on another journalistic jaunt (I do love my job) and while wandering back from doing my interview, went to have a look at the magnolias. They’d been rather clobbered by frost, unfortunately – occupational hazard if you’re a magnolia – but there was still enough there to make me swoon.
This one was amazing (and this pic is now my desktop – VP take note, I’ve shown you mine now too!). This is M. ‘Phelan Bright’, and these flowers are 10″ across. Pretty amazing anyway, but even more so when you consider the tree is only 3 years old (some magnolias can take up to 20 years to flower).
Sadly this lovely thing was just about the only flower on the whole tree not reduced to brown and tattered ribbons by frost. Made it all the more special that this one survived. This is M. heptapita ‘Yulan’ – I’d never heard of the species, but the flower colour was the purest white of the lot.
Magnolias aren’t often praised for anything except their flowers, but the buds are just gorgeous (fuzzy brown nutkins you can’t help but stroke) and the leaves are often spectacular too. None more so than the leaves of M. grandiflora – it’s evergreen and as you can see has lush, almost tropical foliage.
I love magnolias for their branch structure and their habit of flowering before the leaves come out – yes, it exposes them to frost, but it also shows you how spectacular pure white flowers against the stark outline of a tree trunk can be. This one is M. x veitchii ‘Alba’.
Note to self: plant another magnolia. I only have M. stellata but every time it comes out in my front garden it looks more spectacular and I promise myself I’ll get another one soon.
Actually this picture was taken a couple of weeks ago, and the blossom has finished since, but for all that its spectacular display is brief, when snowy mespilus flowers in spring it really steals the show.
These delicate, butterfly flowers are far more graceful than cherries: they’re less overblown, less in-your-face, far more comfortable in their own beautiful skin. These are not flowers that need to shout their arrival: they just appear one day, and everyone drops what they’re doing to stare.
One of the most lovely things about the snowy mespilus blossom is that it appears against the very young growth of the leaves, which at this time of year is tinged a coppery bronze. The combination will take your breath away. This is in many ways the perfect small garden tree: it will now clothe itself with vibrant pale green leaves all summer, provide striking purplish-black berries in autumn, and shed its leaves with a final flourish of vivid orangey-reds. It never gets too big, or too messy-looking, and it’s not too fussy about its soil – it even puts up with my free-draining sand. If you don’t have a mespilus in your garden, go out and buy one right away: you’re missing something very special.
Just sometimes you meet a truly, truly memorable plant. The kind of plant you just know you’ll think about for the rest of your life, in an “oh yeah… now that was amazing” sort of way.
This happened to me last week, while on holiday in Cornwall (of which much more later). The plant in question was a Michelia doltsopa in Caerhays – a fabulous garden, with a National Collection of magnolias and their close relatives, which include the Michelia family.
Now, I discovered while doing a bit of research for a recent article that this not-very-commonly-grown tree is causing some excitement in magnolia-growing circles (not very mainstream, admittedly) – since one of its close relatives (M. yunnanensis) in the process of being recategorised as a magnolia. Well – all I can say is, you might think magnolias are spectacular – but cop a load of this.