Thursday, 25 June 2009

Where have all the flowers come from?

I had an odd conversation a couple of weeks ago about the plants in the garden where I work and where they come from. One of the domestic staff wanted to know how many of the plants were native. I'm not sure what she was getting at but she seemed concerned that so few of them were from 'around here'. I told her that if she stepped outside the garden gate or looked over into the field next door, that almost everything she'd see would be native. That didn’t seem to satisfy her. I don't think she was any kind of eco-fundamentalist. I met a few of those in Australia - gardeners who will only grow 'natives', never mind that Australia is a continent as big as Europe, and Western Australian plants are as foreign to Tasmania as Turkish plants are to the UK. There are some purists though who will only grow those species indiginous to the garden's immediate environs, and the Australian flora being what it is, that usually includes a lot of interesting things. But I digress. She seemed to be making a different point. She seemed to feel that all or most of the plants in the garden must be in some sense native to the UK.
It would seem a silly and unmemorable sort of conversation if I hadn't caught a well-known gardening presenter (who should have known better) on Radio 4 marvelling at the variety of plants growing in the garden she was talking about, and how they came from 'all corners of the world', as if that was unusual. Many people - even apparently quite keen gardeners don't seem to know where their plants come from. We increasingly want to know where our food comes from, whether we want it to be locally sourced or from some authentic location over seas. We take a pride in our Mexican furniture, Nepalese fabrics or African glassware - not just for practical or aesthetic reasons but because knowing where they come from gives us some of the same feeling we get from travelling - of being in touch with another culture, another climate, another environment. Why don't we feel this way about the plants in our gardens?
Of course, few of the plants we buy are actually grown further afield than the Netherlands, but even quite a modest suburban plot will have Hebes originally from New Zealand, Fuchsias from Latin America, maybe Pelargoniums from South Africa, Lavender from the Mediterranean, Hydrangeas from Japan. Why is it, when we like to source that special Pinot Noir from Tasmania or parmesan from some obscure farm in wherever parmesan comes from (somewhere in Italy – I do know that) we aren’t interested in where our garden plants come from - especially when knowing that is so much more informative? Knowing what farm a cheese was made at might tell you what to expect but it won’t tell you what to do with it. Knowing where a plant comes from can tell you a lot about how to grow it.
This entry has already gone on for long enough. I’ll explain some of the things I mean next time but I want to finish by briefly describing possibly the one experience that started me on this way of thinking about plants. I was at a place called Pittwater, some miles north of Sydney, visiting a woman I’d fallen in love with in Devon the previous summer. This was nearly twenty years ago (is it really that long?) and it ended badly but my memory of that trip has stayed with me ever since. I simply don’t think I had ever really seen what a completely alien vegetation looks like.
I’d been gardening for a decade by then and always more the plantsman than the designer – I thought I knew what to expect. I knew what a Eucalyptus looks like, an Acacia, a Grevillea, but I was used to the English scale of things. We have roughly the same number of species in the whole of the UK as the Botany Bay area of New South Wales alone (just up the coast from Pittwater). And if you head a hundred miles west from Pittwater you won’t find more or less the same things as you saw on the coast as you would here. It’ll be a completely different assemblage. There are something like 700 different Eucalypts (though a recent revision has split this gargantuan genus into smaller parts) and a similar number of Acacias, and they don’t all look much the same. The Grevilleas are especially diverse and there’s more than 250 species of those – from the familiar spikey juniper-like rosmarinifolia with it’s funny spidery red flowers to the tree-like robusta with its luxurient pinnate leaves and long golden ‘toothbrush’ inflorescences, and everything in between. Suddenly the idiocy of two such different plants being in the same genus made some sort of sense.
I stood on the promontory overlooking Pittwater among the plants on the headland and didn’t recognise anything. The vegetation was low and heathy and aromatic. I knelt down and peered at what I later discovered was a Hakea – a close relative of Grevillea and an equally large genus. I looked at the peculiar little curly white flower and tried to figure out how it worked. It’s a member of the Protea family but looks nothing like a Protea (I’ll do an entry on plant classification another time) and the flowers in this family are not like ordinary flowers. When the stigma, the female part, uncurls it is at first unreceptive to pollen. Instead it is sticky and carries the pollen from the anthers (the male parts) that remain hidden inside the flower. Only later, when this pollen has been shed does it become receptive to the pollen of other flowers in the normal way. I’ve since discovered that other plants do something like this but at the time it blew me away. What sort of place was this?
Well, it was Australia, where the females are supposedly used to doing all the work. But no, suddenly I was aware of how different a place can be, how distinctive it’s flora can be, and in it’s own way, how beautiful, and that realisation has completely changed the way I look both at foreign places when I travel, and at my own garden. I no longer looked at plants simply as objects for this or that spot in the garden, of this or that shape or colour, complementing this or that other plant’s shape or colour. Now my plants were emissaries from the outside world, a much wider world, with a wider, wilder context. I couldn’t just bung them in any-old-how any more.
This may sound limiting. The designers like to be able to mix and match on purely formal gounds but it has an aesthetic side too. Plants from the same or similar backgrounds tend to look right together, need similar conditions, and work well together. Plants from very different places, to me, look increasingly jarring.
So now I want several acres to make a botanic garden on, with an area for each of the floristic zones of the world. Until that day comes I make do with a small suburban plot and I have to accept that my Kniphofias (from South Africa) will have to sit next to my Tradescantias (from North America) and Alstroemerias (from South America). Oh well… Does anybody have several acres in South Devon to spare? Anyone?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Henfield Farmer's market

Well, here I am, in case anyone was wondering what I look like (the shades and hat don't help do they?), or indeed, whether I exist at all.
I've been preparing for this for weeks, getting the laminated labels ready, potting things up so they'd look their best.
It was a gorgeous morning and everything looked very nice but I only took £40 in the whole day (and then went and spent half of that on croissants, fresh fish and smoked meat from the other stall holders). None of the others did much better. Neil Johnson of Stonepit nurseries, who has taken over organising the market is doing his best to liven things up but has his work cut out.
The problem seems to be a lack of passing trade since we're hidden away at the far end of the municipal car park behind Budgens. To be fair, there's little room actually in the high street itself for stalls - the pavements and the road itself are mostly quite narrow but I have the feeling that, as usual, it's more about political will and vested interests. There is a prime leafy shady space right in the centre of town in front of a bank and a dry-cleaning shop but the owners (allegedly) won't hear of it being used. Why not? In any other town in Europe that space would be full of chairs and tables, people chatting and eating and generally having a nice time. What is wrong with us? Another possible spot is where the road is wider toward the south end of town (toward Golden Square and The Common).
Other towns requisition parking spaces and forecourts along the high street on market days and everybody benefits. I realise there is not enough space for the entire market to be accomodated this way but a few stalls here and there would make it obvious to passing traffic when something was going on and draw the public through side passages to stalls in the car parks and other spaces behind the shops.
Anyway, I think we can do better than this.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Asclepias incarnata

Asclepias incarnata, originally uploaded by peganum.
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias incarnata
There are lots of exciting species of Asclepias in the U.S.A. This is one of the most common and deserves to be more widely grown over here. The flowers, in contrasting pale and dark pink resemble those of a Hoya (to which it is related) and are worth a close look. Leafy, clump-forming herbaceous perennials with reddish stems to 2ft. Any soil, but heavy and damp soils in sun are especially favoured.
3L pots ~ £8

Monday, 8 June 2009

Weigela coraeensis

Weigela coraeensisWeigela coraeensis, originally uploaded by peganum.
A rarely seen Weigela whose flowers open white and turn through dusky pink to wine red. It sounds like it could be garish but isn't.
Weigela coraeensis
Extremely easy and adaptable and very vigorous but responds well to hard pruning immediately after flowering.
Large plants - £22

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Buying your plants

On line I can accept payments by Paypal, international bank transfer, cheque (with a not-to exceed amount written across the lines in case not everything you order is available, and payable to me, Steve Law) with card details of course. At the nursery, sadly, I cannot take card payments.


I recommend phoning ahead if you want me to put things by for you for when you arrive.

Please enquire about availability before ordering. Some plants are only available in very small numbers. 

Although I am more than happy to discuss your choices and give advice, I would strongly recommend having a good look at the information and photos here on the website before coming, and making a list of the things that interest you.

Post and packaging
Within the UK (excluding Scottish Highlands and islands, Northern Ireland and other UK islands) delivery charges are as follows:

Order value between -
and above

Deliveries to other parts of the EU are perfectly possible but we will need to agree the p&p. Please contact me before ordering.
I am entirely open to other options concerning the best way to get your plants to you, and if you live locally I might well be able to deliver in person. Please feel free to contact me.

Time of dispatch
Please note - as yet we are far from Amazonian in our speed of dispatch. I have no staff and still have a day job so please allow three weeks or so from time of ordering to receiving your plant. If you need your plants at a specific time - if they are a gift for example, or you are planning to be away, please let me know.
Unlike many nurseries, I am prepared to send plants out at any time of year. Plants in full growth in summer often travel remarkably well if they are properly packed in a large box and don't overheat. Foliage and even flowers spring back and plants establish quickly given the correct planting and after-care. Be aware that some plants though have very brittle stems (members of the poppy family for instance) and might suffer more than others.
On the other hand, buying plants in the winter (the traditional time to sell plants) can be something of a lucky dip, especially with plants that go completely underground. We've all had the experience of buying an apparently lifeless pot in winter and in the spring discovering it is indeed completely lifeless.
Generally I prefer to send plants out as they begin growth in the spring or are dying back in the late summer-autumn period.
Packages are generally sent out via the Royal Mail, who have not let me down yet, and generally toward the beginning of the week to avoid them hanging around over the weekend. Please let me know if you want the plants to arrive by or at a particular time.

On arrival
On arrival, it is best to unpack your plants immediately and give them some water, especially in hot weather. I sometimes find it best not to plant them immediately but to stand them somewhere sheltered from excess heat, cold and wind for at least a day or two to adjust. If conditions are not right for planting immediately or if it is inconvenient it may make sense to pot plants on temporarily until you get around to them, rather than leave them in the containers they arrived in.

Plant sizes
Some nurseries I know send out what are little more than seedlings or rooted cuttings among their consignments which, realistically, need growing on in the nursery for another season before they can be expected to survive in the open. I am happy to send out immature plants at reduced prices to customers who enjoy growing things on but as a rule I send only mature plants or strong young plants that can go into the ground more-or-less immediately.

Mistakes and problems
For my part I will endeavour to make sure that the plants I send are strong and healthy and correctly identified. I cannot guarantee that plants will have no evidence of 'wildlife' on them at all but in the unlikely event that a plant is not the one you ordered, has been seriously damaged in transit, is infested, dessicated, rotted off or otherwise moribund, do not hesitate to contact me as soon as possible to arrange a replacement or refund.
With consignments sent abroad, I can't accept responsibility if the customs men decide to get whimsical with your package. I'll fill out any paperwork required but after that it's out of my hands. They seem to be a law unto themselves. That said, I've had no problems yet, touch wood...

Some varieties are available only in small quantities so contact me first to avoid being disappointed. If you see anything that especially interests you in the Blog or in the Gallery Flickr photoset that is not listed please don't hesitate to ask about future availability. I might not be able to reserve plants individually long term but depending on how busy I get, I may be able to alert you if something you've asked about becomes available.

Many thanks

Monday, 1 June 2009


'Not this again' I hear you cry. Yes this again. People still seem very suspicious, not to say downright hostile when they see I don't use peat. 'Don't you know how much peat the Irish power stations burn every day?' they say. Well no, not precisely, but I can imagine. I am well aware what a futile gesture this may seem but then, I feel I can afford to make it because I think peat free composts are actually better.
Aha. You weren't expecting that were you?
I got back from a couple of days away recently (buying stock plants in Hampshire) to find inevitably some plants sitting in completely dried-out compost. It ocurred to me as I hosed them down, sipping my latte, that in the past, when I used peat-based compost like everyone else I'd have been spending this time soaking them in a bucket of water and they'd have been sadly floating there and I'd have been stomping about (tired and scuzzy from travelling) waiting for them to take up the water. I know some modern composts have 'wetting agents' (aka soap) but really, why bother when you could be just standing there, hosing them down with a cup of coffee in your hand, watching the bats as the pots quickly and naturally, absorb the water?
Secondly, and I have absolutely no proper evidence for this claim, only personal experience (and I am enough of a scientist to know how much that counts for) I have not seen a vine weevil here since I began (touches wood for good measure). It has long been said that vine weevil like peat-based composts and loam-based (John Innes) composts were suggested as a partial solution. My feeling at the moment is that they don't really like peat-free composts either, despite the similar texture. Interesting.
Beyond this, I've not noticed that peat-free composts are less productive than peat-based. Maybe it's a matter of a few percent in bulk or numbers or time (but then I don't lose plants because the compost is unwettable). A few percentage points no doubt matter hugely to big producers (for whom vast consistent supplies of peat were a major advantage of course) but are to me undetectable.
Furthermore, besides its acidity, peat is more or less chemically inert. Any nutrients have to be added. Growing plants in peat is therefore not that different from growing plants hydroponically, and one would not expect plants grown hydroponically to do well when transfered to ordinary garden soils.
And yes, from an environmental point of view, and whatever the Irish might be doing, why import vast quantities of natural habitat when there's all this waste product available?

Peat-free composts do vary in quality, I know. I've tried a few in my time and the one I use is the New Horizon Organic and Peat Free multipurpose (no they're not paying me to say this) which used to be a bit patchy and had little needles in it, like raspberry canes or cacti had been composted in it but which is now of consistent fine quality. I mix this with a John Innes loam-based compost (number 2 or 3, which I know still include some peat) more or less 50:50 which I feel gives a better texture and makes the pots a bit heavier so the plants don't blow over so easily if they dry out (and which is recommended by Pippa Greenwood I believe). I also add sand or grit for plants that like a more drained compost and blood-fish-and-bone if the plants need a bit of extra feeding.
I realise this system would be difficult to implement on an industrial scale but for a small nursery, well, I find the results more than satisfactory.