Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Winter Visit to Kew

We decided to take a well deserved break from our usual routines with a visit to Kew Gardens this afternoon. Although a reasonably mild winters day we kept to the inside spaces.

First off was the iconic Palm House,  which was designed by architect Decimus Burton and iron-maker Richard Turner in the 1840's. We were fortunate that it was not a popular day to visit Kew, and had most of the glasshouses almost to ourselves.
All through the Palm House, the wrought iron work is visible.
Bright Croton, amongst the various shades of green. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Wishing all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frost, De-Frost

It was a frosty and a little bit snowy start to the weekend that's just gone past, with thick frost covering the roofs, ground, and plants greeting us as we went out into the garden last Saturday morning. There was a bit of snow the day before too, although most of it has melted by the evening, a little bit was left to freeze again overnight, adding to the icy scape of the morning.

And it was a cold weekend indeed, with temperatures rising only a couple of degrees above zero but fortunately didn't dip down beyond minus one celsius overnight. Still though, most of the morning frosts were gone by midday despite the relatively low temperatures, melted away with some light drizzle in between bouts of glorious full sun.

Cold, but not that cold to stop us doing a few more bits in the garden including doing a bit more towards finishing our pond/garden project.

But before I carry on, one other activity I had to do last Saturday was to de-frost our fridge freezer. It's a trivial matter but it amused me thinking that, there I was de-frosting the inside as the outside de-frosts too. Somehow these 'frost free' fridge freezers still manages to accumulate some thick ice in time, although probably not as quick as non frost free ones do, and it had to be defrosted soon to free up more space for the coming Christmas food shopping. We've tried to use up as much of the remaining stock in the past few days, with the remaining ones swiftly relocated to Gaz's parents freezer while the chilled items were bunged in a large plastic container, lid closed and placed....outside!

Outside but in a shady spot. Cold days have its uses too and with temperatures outside just as cold as the inside of the chilled section of a refrigerator then I might as well utilise the chill. Rest assured the few items I took out didn't stay out too long, fortunately defrosting was quick and they were back in by the afternoon. And yes, lots more space now for more festive food!

Frost free under the jungle hut!
Okay, enough of the trivia and back to the garden! After spending a few moments checking out the plants in the greenhouses and the outbuilding, making sure they are cosy, snug, and not dried out, we carried on building the filtration house. Most of the activities we've done to the filtration house over the past two weekends were finishing up the roof and putting up the wooden cladding of the building. These can be done even if the temperatures are low as long as it was comfortable for us to carry on working. And by the end of last weekend all of the reclaimed roof tiles have been laid, lots more wooden cladding have been hammered on, and the guttering is already half way done.

We were hoping to finish putting all of the ridge tiles on last weekend, as the weekend before it was 'warm' enough so that were were able to cement in place most of them, albeit still using some quick setting cement (which sets even when its damp and with low temperature). But last weekend felt just too cold to mix up some mortar to fasten the remaining ridge tiles in place, not worth the risk of it not setting properly and just needing to be redone if it didn't.

And speaking of ridge tiles, we couldn't find weather worn, reclaimed ones to match the roof tiles we've used. Well at least we couldn't find the small amount we needed to finish off our project, the ones available near us seems to be sold in huge quantities only (and you can't just buy a few). So we had to use brand new ones, with the only drawback being looking so new and bright red. At the moment its 'newness' stands out in contrast to the old ones beside it. It will also weather in time, blending in with the rest but I might give nature a helping hand with a bit of my cookies and cream preparation painted on to it. Should work a treat!

Hopefully next Saturday will be mild enough so that we can cement on the last few remaining ridge tiles and the roofing to be completely finished. And that Saturday is Christmas Eve already! It'll take us only an hour to do this remaining bit and then hopefully spend the rest of the day  indoors, preparing for Christmas Day and soaking in on the festive atmosphere.

And eating lots of food too! I didn't de-frost that fridge to make space for lots more food for no good reason after all ;-)


Thursday, December 08, 2011

My First David Austin Rose

I had a little thrill this morning when I saw that my first David Austin rose has finally arrived. I bought it for myself of course, and it's not a bunch of cut flowers that will only last for a few days but rather a bare root plant that can be planted out as soon as possible.

One extra thing that I liked about this new arrival is the packaging. I'm so used to receiving packages of plants on a regular basis, but instead of the usual functional brown cardboard box or jiffy bags unceremoniously wrapped with tons of tape and packing material, what arrived is a recyclable brown bag printed with intricate patterns and sealed with stitches. It looked more like I just bought a plant from a fancy flower shop down Marylebone Road rather than a muddy nursery somewhere in the countryside. So civilised!

Okay, I'm milking it now. There's some light humour going on behind this particular order and I'm basking on such a twee delight.

For those not in the know, there's a little bit of banter going on amongst exotic gardening enthusiasts that, if you want to quit exotic gardening or embody the complete antithesis of it then you must start buying roses and have a quintessential English Rose garden.

I must confess I do like roses, and just because we don't grow several in our garden (we only have one prior to this purchase) doesn't mean that I don't appreciate them, nor a style of garden that consists mostly of them. (And if you at least appreciate them like I do check out Holley's lovely blog here ).

My first impulse whenever I walk in a rose garden and/or see a rose flower is to smell it and bask in it's beautiful scent (and feel a little disappointment when a rose I just sniffed turns out to be unscented). And the experience of being in a well kept rose garden in the middle of summer, surrounded by thousands of blooms is magical and unforgettable (A rose garden in Warwickshire we visited a few years ago springs to mind).

'A rose in an exotic garden I hear you say?'

'Yes and well, why not?' I'd say! Roses have been cultivated in England for hundreds of years  to the point that it is already well ingrained into its culture and history (The English Rose, The War of the Roses, etc) and is synonymous to being English. Not to mention that all 'classically English' styles of gardening and gardens (Cottage, Rose, Knot, Formal, etc.) have roses as an essential, if not the main ingredient to the planting scheme. Hence, a rose is considered to be 'not so exotic'.

In reality though, most of these roses we see now are not exactly 'natives'. They have been introduced here through the years from various different locations around the world, cultivated, and adapted to the local conditions and tastes of local gardeners. So in essence, most of these roses are actually 'exotics' too.

Rosa sericea subsp. omeiensis f. pteracantha (photo from
But before I get carried away waffling on, I must go back to this particular rose I just bought from David Austin. I first saw the plant Rosa sericea subsp. omeiensis f. pteracantha (or rather bought to my conscious attention) when it was featured on Loree's fabulous blog a few weeks ago. Photos of those  gorgeous, bright red thorns glistening under the sunlight with it's dainty, ferny foliage was too much to resist and I had to add it to my 'wishlist'. Upon further research I found out that this particular rose is originally from China (so yes, it is technically an 'exotic' plant), introduced in the UK during the Victorian era and has been in cultivation here ever since. How could I miss it after all this time?

Photo from
The answer is, maybe because it is a rose after all. I tend not to wander around the rose section of various garden centres we've visited in the past, hence the most plausible reason why I've missed it until recently. One of the many lessons I've learned with this exotic gardening lark is to not bypass nor dismiss a plant just because they belong to a group that is generally regarded as 'non exotic', like Cornus, Aesculus, Impatiens, etc., when these genus' are so diverse that you can find species and cultivars of it introduced from all over the world. I just need to make a conscious thought to include the genus Rosa in this group from now on.

Photo from
And funny how some plants get to capture your attention if they are highlighted by somebody else, and photographed in a setting that is not normally associated with such plants. That's what exactly happened, Loree blogged about it, shown a photo of it planted beside traditionally 'exotic' plants, and presto, it's bagged a fan in me!

Now, as I've found out that this particular rose can be bought readily from most garden centres, I've opted to buy the named variety Rosa sericea subsp. omeiensis f. pteracantha 'Red Wing' (whew! what a name!) instead, also available at David Austin. Why pay the p&p for the usual type if I can pick it up from somewhere nearby? At least it gives me an onus to visit our nearest garden centre and browse at their rose section

Rosa sericea 'Red Wing' (Photo from
This particular variety is supposed to have more thorns and are brighter red in colour compared to the usual form. All I need to do now is to acquire the other one and compare them myself in the spring. And I'm so looking forward to finding out!

And so, back to David Austin, will this be my first and last rose from them? I'm keeping an open mind so probably not :-)


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Garden House and the Mystery Schefflera

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.....

It seems a strange introduction but there is a definite nip in the air recently, with thick frost on all of the cars and the road feeling a bit slippery with ice for the first time on my way to work this morning. I don't normally get into the Christmas spirit until about a couple of weeks before the actual day but with the recent chill in the air it looks like I will be lulled into an early Christmas feeling this time. 

Saying that, around this time last year we were covered in blankets of snow and have had several subzero temperatures already, so the mild autumn we've just experienced was a wonderful bonus. But all of us got used to the milder temperatures and with the sudden feel of chill in the air, everyone seems to have been suddenly reminded that it is winter after all (based on the amount of weather reports I received from all of our clients I spoke to today!).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Anatomy and Treasures

Schefflera digitata
Business as usual! After a much needed (and well deserved me thinks!) short break it's back again to tending to the garden during the weekends. I was actually really looking forward to it after not seeing the garden properly for several days, almost two weeks in fact. Although we have only been away for a few days the lack of daytime light impedes in seeing the garden properly during the week, being that it's dark when we head off to work and already dark when we get back. So it's only at the weekend that we can give everything a proper look over and continue with things that needs to be done.

The shorter daylight hours in the winter has both bad points and good points; bad being that you only have a short amount of time to get crackin' in the garden with natural light, and good being that at least you are forced to pack up and head indoors much earlier and do something else. Artificial lights are never the same really, you get to see better detail with natural daylight.

In the summer we can continue outdoors till nine in the evening, now we start packing up just before four. I'm still getting used to the routine of being indoors relatively early but it's good to be able to catch up on a few more 'indoorsy' activities that gets sidelined in the summer. Mind you, we don't exactly stay indoors most of the time. Four pm is still early and there's plenty of time to go shopping and places after being in the garden, fantastic!

By the way, if the title seems disjointed it's because this entry is actually a small collection of updates of what we got up to last weekend. It'll make sense pretty soon!

The Heart of the Pond

The pond build continues but with the shift in season and temperatures we have to focus on the wood work aspect of the build, and that includes the Filtration House. It was just the two of us this time as Dad was unavailable last weekend but we were still able to do plenty. Most of the thinking, hammering, and sawing is done by Gaz and my role is mainly to just pass things around and hold things in place as he hammers away. My role is not as physically intense compared to the other aspects of the project but I regard it as just taking a rain cheque, considering how much hard labour I've put in sorting the base.

One of my colleagues at work christened this part of the built as building the 'Heart of the Pond'. As romantic as that may sound, it's not really the heart of the pond but more like the ribcage. It will be the Ribcage that will enclose and protect the three Hearts (pumps), Lungs (aeration), and Livers (filtration);  and it is these hearts that will keep the entire Vascular System (pipework) circulating and making sure that the water is at it's best for the health of the fish and clarity of water.

The Filtration House is very much part of the design and plan of the overall area and deserves it's own dedicated attention. I somehow underestimated the amount of time needed to build this but it's clearer to me now that this will take much longer than I expected. There's actually a lot to, both inside and and out, aesthetic and functional bits.

So far so good, the main timber frame of the walls and roof are already built and the waterproofing membrane has been fastened, bar the apex of the roof which has been left open to let more light in temporarily. We have now started putting up the exterior cladding which will be the face of the structure. 

Funny enough, most of the cladding work that was done last Saturday was to the back of the structure facing our neighbour's garden so at the end of the day it looked like nothing was done. On Sunday we were able to do most of the left side facing the temporary greenhouse and most satisfying of all, have started the front of the building. After days of building the Skeleton (timber framework), it's great to see the Skin and Face slowly unravelling. But unlike real anatomy, Muscles and Fat (insulation) won't be applied until much later on when the Skull Cap (roof) has been applied and the interior is mostly watertight.

Treasures in and out of the Greenhouse

It's not all building works that we did last weekend, we also had time for some gardening as well. First was I started grouping some of the plants that are likely to be planted out on to the raised beds which includes the lovely Buddleja 'Silver Anniversary' that has matte and silvery leaves which will reinforce the colour scheme of the first raised bed; and Edgeworthia chrysantha which has lovely, bluish foliage that will be perfect for the second raised bed, with the blue tone picking off the scheme from the first raised bed.

Buddleja 'Silver Anniversary'
Edgeworthia chrysantha

And then on to the greenhouse. It always makes me smile that whenever we have visitors they are just as curious as what's inside our greenhouses as to what we have growing outside. The temporary one is jam packed for the winter and I took some time to do some tidying up, removing dead leaves that may attract excess fungal growth if left in situ, as well as some watering. I've also done some rearranging to accommodate a few more plants in, like a Dichroa febrifuga and three pots of seed grown Schefflera digitatas.

Dichroa febrifuga
This Dichroa febrifuga was going to go in the compost heap, treated as an annual. It was already uprooted from it's summer residence but somehow I forgot to pick it up from where I've put it and it stayed there for weeks, bare rooted on it's side and exposed to frosts on one occasion. And then I found it again a few days ago, full of buds. It wants to live! Such resilience has called on to me and it deserved to be kept so it has since been repotted and now earns a rightful place in the greenhouse.

Schefflera digitata
As for the three pots of Schefflera digitata, one of the plants seems to be keeping the serration that are typical of juvenile leaves, unlike the other two which already are already exhibiting the mature leaf form which has smoother margins. An unusual looking Schefflera and I'm hoping it carries on with its unusual (and more desirable) trait. It seems to be a weak plant though, slow yet demanding with water requirement. The sort of plant for collectors only.

Hmmmm.....Two days and six hours each day. Not bad! :)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

National Botanic Garden of Belgium - Part II

Following on from the tour of the Plant Palace in Belgium's National Botanic Garden, here we explore the rest of the gardens. As I mentioned previously the weather had already turned much cooler in Belgium than at home, so the gardens were further into Autumn. Nethertheless we had a very pleasant walk round in the (cool) sunshine.

The garden moved to its current home in the grounds of Bouchout Castle in 1938. The castle is still very much at the centre of the garden, and still surrounded on several sides by water. 

The castle dates back to the middle ages and has had substantial redevelopment over the years. I believe it's possible to stay in the Castle, although I don't know whether you have full freedom to explore the gardens out of hours if you were to book it for a holiday.

This photo doesn't give the scale of this tree justice, we were walking up one of the pathways and were both drawn to this. Many of the trees in the parkland pre-date the botanical garden. 

A smaller glass house was filled with Agaves
And they claim to have over a hundred types and species in their collection
Wandering round the parkland and as you can see Autumn was very much in full swing. I think the yellow carpet here was from a Ginkgo biloba.


This Cypress was in full Autumn mode. I am always fascinated by the strange roots that these grow near to water.
Many of us have to protect plants in winter, but how many have to go to such lengths as these? The plant being protected in the second picture below is easy to work out as it still has leaves poking out of the top (Musa basjoo). However what do you think is being protected by the metal sheeting?

Hopefully we will get the opportunity to visit again during a summer month sometime in the future.


National Botanic Garden of Belgium

Monday, November 21, 2011

National Botanic Garden of Belgium - A tour of the Plant Palace

Mark and I have had a well deserved short break in the Belgian capital Brussels. Although we did all the typical tourist activities (Atomium, Grand Place, various museums, waffles and chocolate! to name a few), we also decided to pay a visit to the Botanical Gardens. 

The first Botanical Garden in Brussels was situated in what is now part of the financial district and closed its doors in 1938 (the glasshouses eventually becoming concert venues). The important plants and botanical collections were moved to the present location in Meise, in the grounds of Bouchout Castle, just to the north of Brussels. Meise is about 4km from Atomium and the Heysel underground train stop, so it was just a short taxi ride (which almost ended up with us going back to the old botanic garden site) to the garden.

With the continental weather a little colder than at home, autumn was much further on than in our garden, however there was still plenty to see.

First off and we headed to the large glass house, grandly named the Plant Palace, which is a series of 13 interconnected glasshouses. The palace is currently undergoing some restoration so the main entrance was closed and we had to walk round to the back.

On entering, the first section was a Mediterranean themed area. Many of the plants in this glasshouse were in pots awaiting this section's turn for building work to create the new beds. The pots were so tightly placed together they didn't detract from the overall look.
Sonchus canariensis

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Scheffleras in the Garden

One of the group of plants we are frequently asked about are the Scheffleras growing in our garden. In relation to my previous post about having blog backlogs, this is one of the topics I was meaning to feature much earlier in the year but never did get round to. I did however start to write a lengthy post about it a few months ago and was halfway through but some other things got in the way and now it belongs to the list of our 'unfinished entries'. I'm sure I'll still be able to finish that lengthy post at some point, but also it might be spring by then and I will have to add a bit more to it as an update.

The least I can do for now is to show how some of them are currently doing in our garden, coupled with a more condensed write up. Without further ado, here are just a few of the several Scheffleras we have in the garden (a photo of a bigger S. taiwaniana can be seen in the post Mornings and Weekends) .

Schefflera aff. chapana
Schefflera rhododendrifolia (syn. impressa)
Most of these Scheffleras are relatively new introductions to the western world, from collections done by individual, modern day plant hunters. Coming from high altitude areas of China and Vietnam they have the potential to be suitable for permanent planting in certain parts of Northern Europe and the US. One or two types however have been in the UK for a few decades now, sourced from earlier expeditions undertaken by various botanical institutions and have been growing in their collections since then (and a bit of material made it's way into the nursery trade and propagated successfully).

Schefflera taiwaniana
Schefflera aff. brevipedicellata (or what's left of it as it's currently going deciduous)
It's one of my favourite group of plants and I find them elegant and attractive, hence I enjoy collecting them. I'm also keen on trying out these new introductions in our garden as they come along, to see if they sail through the winters here and consequently thrive. The results have been mixed but mostly it's been good and several are doing really well now. I do however, choose which ones to plant out and try (rather than risk all of the new introductions I can get my hands on) based on the altitude of where the original material was collected from. Collections made above 2000 meters above sea level have a good potential for cold hardiness, between 1500 to just under 2000 meters can be borderline, and anything lower than that is more likely to be too tender for our location. This is just a rough guide given to me by a couple of these plant collectors and is not definitive.

Schefflera aff. rhododendrifolia
What I find most fascinating about it all is that, like most people we are familiar with the Schefflera arboricola, a common houseplant found virtually all over the world. Even in tropical regions where this plant can thrive permanently outside, it is still used as a houseplant there. Then all of a sudden there are now Scheffleras available that can be grown outside, in our gardens, in cold temperate UK. And for a plant exoticist like me it is extra exciting.

Schefflera kornasii
This blog post might rouse more questions than answers especially to those interested in trying out these plants for the first time, or thinking of adding more to their existing collections. This is just a condensed post and hopefully I'll be able to do the lengthier version  in the next few months. There are several more new species about to come out from some of the nurseries here, also from high altitude collections and I'm keen to try them in our garden as they come along. And yes, more blog opportunities in the future :-)