Thursday, January 27, 2011

Worth the Inconvenience

So how much inconvenience are you willing to put up with just to be able to bring home a plant?

Quite alot here, not to the point of utter pain and suffering, but the willingness to go through a state of discomfort for a few hours just to be able to bring back home a plant I'm smitten with!

And it has happened several times before, through the years of visiting nurseries, going on plant shopping trips, buying plants on our holidays here and abroad, or just simply spotting a plant you just have to get at times when you least expect or prepared for it.

Just recently we went for a weekend break staying at a friend's house in Devon, which is about 200 miles away from where we live. On a visit to their nearby retail and amusement park, I spotted a lovely looking plant growing happily outside in the garden section. From a distance it looked like a bromeliad, which would have been unusual as it's planted out in the open and that area has gone down to possibly lower than -10C, and very few bromeliads could survive such low temperatures (Fascicularia bicolor ssp. canaliculata can, and the odd others). On closer inspection it looked more like a small yucca, with spiny tips but what attracted me are the colour, symmetry and arrangement of leaves. And the fact it remained unflawed despite all the frosts and snow it's been through.

My thoughts were confirmed when a couple was available for sale near the counters, labelled as Yucca aloifolia 'Purpurea'. The shape and form of the plant is unlike any other yucca I've encountered before and suffice to say I'm smitten. So pleased they had some for sale andjust had to bring back one with us.

Not wanting to risk ruining the symmetry or bruising the leaves by placing it at the boot, I opted to place it in between my legs throughout our journey back home. Now that's a three and a half hour car journey that I had this yucca wedged between my legs! It made the journey uncomfortable for me but it was so well worth it, chuffed that it made home in a pristine condition.

Now that's not the first time I've been through a long car journey with a plant on my lap or in between my legs. Almost always, whenever we get back from Cornwall and our car full to the brim with plants have I found myself needing to do this. There was even a time we had to place all our luggage on the roof rack so that all the plants can be accomodated at the back and boot of the car (and at the front!).

Other uncomfortable situations I've subjected myself into before are having to sit at the back with a much smaller space to make way for long and big specimens, having leafy plants brushing my face for hours in the car, and hand carrying plants of varying sizes from Central London all the way home using both the London Undeground and National Rail in the process, with the most recent being a Yucca rostrata in a heavy terracotta pot during rush hour.

I sometimes doubt my sanity whilst in the midst of it all but as soon as I get home all doubts dissappear and it feels great getting them home.

So many wonderful plants out there that would make a lovely addition to your garden or collection, and getting some of them home can be tricky or uncomfortable. But if you really want it and it'll make you happy then it is definitely worth the inconvenience :)

Update 30/01/11: Upon further research on the plant Yucca aloifolia 'Purpurea', it seems that it could be the same as Yucca desmetiana, and that the former is a mislabelling. I'll look more into it and post an update :)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A spot of fencing

Despite the cool January weather we spent much of the weekend outside getting stuck into a spot of fencing.

Now what has this armed combat sport got to do with a blog about Exotic Gardening I hear you ask?

Well actually not a lot, for us terms like Foil, Sabre and Epee are replaced by posts, gravel boards and concrete, as we got stuck into one of the winter jobs and started to replace an old section of wooden fence long since past its best.

We had to collect a number of concrete posts yesterday from a local builders merchant, and my Dad and his trusty trailer came in handy yet again (I have to make a  special mention as he often helps us on some of the building projects and on reading the blog had noted that rather than being given full credit has appeared in a photo making a rather unflattering pose).

Unfortunately said trusty trailer is getting on in years and wouldn't cope well with five 8foot concrete posts balanced on it so we had to make two trips with Mark being left in the cold outside the builders merchants looking after the last couple of posts.

We made a good start today clearing away the old fence and starting to dig out the new post holes, however soon found that some of the old wooden posts that have long since rotted away were concreted into place. My idea of fun on a cold January day isn't digging out a 2 foot deep lump of old concrete so the new posts will be put in just to the side of the old fence.

Hopefully we will have a dry (and slightly milder) weekend next week to get this particular project finished.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Thinking About my Babies

My Unique Tancho Koi
One of the things I look forward to whenever I get out in the garden are seeing my beautiful babies, our Koi and Goldfish swimming around the pond looking lovely with their bright and vivid colours shimmering on the water. And of course they're happy to see us too, the moment they sense any of us are around they gather at their usual feeding spot, mouths wide open and often scrambling on top of each other in an attempt to get the first batch of food thrown at them. The big ones effortlessly get their share of the food, but the smaller ones aren't coy either in asserting themselves and getting their fair share.

Gin Rin Sanke
Koi especially are such endearing pets, they can be trained to be tame enough to feed from your hands and docile enough to allow you to touch them when you're near the pond. And their seeming dependence on you when it comes to feeding makes them even more endearing. Their tameness have rubbed off on some of our goldfish too, which are now happy to be hand fed!

It's so relaxing and enjoyable watching them swimming around doing their own thing, with their vivid colours and patterns moving gracefully on the water. They have an undeniable calming effect on you, or for anyone else who watches them, and they make you slow down whenever you pass by the pond. And it certainly does for me, no matter how busy we get in the garden I always make time to occasionally stop and just watch them swimming around, and I'm instantly relaxed and more refreshed. At times I lose track of the time and end up watching them much longer than I should.

From spring till mid autumn, I look forward to the routine of going to the pond to feed them just before I go to work, and doing the same first thing as soon as I get back then check the rest of the garden afterwards. It's always nice to see their friendly fishy faces before heading for work and again after a long day.

Removable Plastic Mesh on Wooden Frames to protect them from predators when we're away from the garden

Winter is the tricky part, with daylight hours much shorter it's still dark when I leave for work and dark already when I get back. Depending how cold it gets, feeding mostly ceases so at least they don't need their daily supply from me. And the pond has a cover for the entire duration of the cold season to keep the water temperature stable and warmer than outside, protecting the fish and keeping them cosy for the winter.

So I don't get to see them for stretches of days in winter. I do think about them and occasionally worry about them, wondering how they are doing under the cover. It's not adviceable to uncover sections of the pond when it's very cold outside as it will release the trapped heat warming the pond and disturbing them in their slowed state. But on milder days and whenever the chance arises, I do remove the covers to check. Today I got that chance and it always gives me a feeling of joy (and a sigh of relief) seeing them happily swimming then approaching me, looking like they're happy to see me too!

More than just garden pets, we've taken it to the next level and make keeping them a more serious hobby. We're well and truly hooked by this wonderful, ornamental fish called Koi, dubbed 'Living Jewels' because of their often vivid colours and patterns. Koi and Koi keeping, another dimension to our garden! 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sweet Scent 365 days a year

The little surprises you can get from plants never cease to amaze me.

I was attracted to the plant Rhododendron roxieanum var. oreonastes because of its interesting foliage, unique from the usual rhododendrons you see around. It is pot grown as our soil is not acidic enough for its requirements, and placed on the side passage leading to the middle and bottom part of the garden where it gets some dappled sun.

What I wasn't expecting though is that the plant emits a sweet and refreshing fragrance, difficult to describe any other way. And by coincidence I've put it on the best spot where you can appreciate its fragrance even more. Everytime you pass by you get a whiff of its sweet scent and anyone else who goes through there never fails to notice it. It makes you slow down and breathe deeper, taking the lovely aroma.

Springtime Bloom

The scent was a complete surprise for me. I didn't buy it knowing that it's scented, nor can I find online references saying it is. The scent seems to come from the leaves only as when it bloomed last spring there wasn't any fragrance coming from the flowers. It's a bit of a mystery for me, I'll have to research even more.

It carries on emitting its lovely fragrance even during the depths winter. When alot of plants are looking weary and its gloomy outside, I catch the sweet perfume wafting in the air, instantly cheering me up.

Plants are wonderful things :)


Friday, January 14, 2011

Plants take a backseat, Concrete takes priority

The first 'regular' weekend of the new year has gone past and we used that time to actually sit down and go through our plans properly for the garden this year. It was actually quite an enjoyable thing to do, it's nice to be in 'normal' mode again after the dizzying business of the so called festive season which can temporarily derail you from your usual routines. Not to mention exciting! Another year, another chance to do something new and get stuck in again.


Taken last summer
 Sifting through all the sketches, plans, paperworks, and technical sheets, it soon dawned on us that we actually have a massive task ahead of us. It has crossed my mind that we may be biting more than we can chew, which I immediately dismissed of course. Always up for a challenge, these sort of thoughts have crossed my mind before but always try to run the extra mile to exceed our personal expectations.

Looking ahead, for us I think this will be the year that the plants will have to take a backseat, and concrete will have to take priority.

I'm not implying that our plants will have to fend for themselves nor I won't be doing much gardening and maintenance, they have their own protected time in our busy lives. And certainly not meaning that we'll just pour concrete on the unfinished parts of the garden as the ultimate low maintenance outside space.

For nearly everyone who has a passion for gardening and plants, whatever type they may be, take delight in thinking about what new plants to buy and acquire, and learning as much about them as part of the entire package. And add to that spending some time poring through books, magazines, and countless of online photos looking for inspirations that one may be able to apply to their own space. 
Files of Notes, Sketches, and Ideas
These activities entertain and occupy me in my spare time too, and it is these activities that I recognise that I must tone down as we need to focus even more on the hard landscaping aspect to the garden. 

Plants will always play the central part for any garden, and will always be a main consideration (apart from a few exceptions of course). But creating a garden is more than just about plants, it is about the interplay between plants, accessories, planting combinations, and of course hard landscaping. And throw in a few more elements into the mixture. The challenge is there to create a harmonious balance that will be pleasing and satisfying, above anyone else, to the creator and owner of this space.
Concrete Roof Tiles
Undoubtedly, hard lanscaping plays an essential part in creating a garden. It provides structure, form, and support to the space . Essential it may be, it's not always the most exciting of tasks to do, and can be hard work and intimidating. But carefully planned and considered, they are generally a one off task that gives a sense of permanency to a place.There is a dazzling array of materials to choose from too; stone, wood, terracotta, steel, and of course concrete. The list goes on!

And speaking of intimidating, the extra challenge for us is that neither of us are in the building and practical trade, far from it being our jobs are in the field of medical and finance. So plenty of effort is poured into doing research, and learning via trial and error from previous projects.

Building a raised bed last summer
Team work and partnership is a big advantage when it comes to this aspect! Fortunately one us is already reasonably skilled when it comes to construction and building work, while the other is good at technical aspects and precision jobs. Most of the demands though are just plain labour intensive and physically demanding, we just help each other out, after all once it's done, it's done. Tiring it may be, the sense of achievement you get afterwards is invigorating.

Admittedly, if budget is generous we wouldn't hesitate calling in the professionals to do most of the work. The project gets done quicker and the finish more impeccable. But doing it mostly yourself certainly does keep the cost down, and any extras can be used to buy more expensive materials instead. We do recognise our limitations too, there are certain aspects that are beyond our skills, not to mention legal requirements, and that's when professionals has to be called in now and again.
Charcoal, our 18 year old cat finds an unusually comfy spot!

But more importanly, doing most of the work yourself, you do get an immense sense of satisfaction seeing something take shape and get completed, knowing it's mainly a product of your own hard graft. And that feeling is priceless.

Gardening is a wonderful hobby, plants are delightful things. But now and again, stone, wood, steel, and concrete has to take priority over them. Just think of it this way, if you care about your plants so much, give them a beautiful and sturdy home too :)


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Argus'

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How we got into Exotic Gardening

We are often asked how we got into gardening and exotic gardening in particular, so here a little insight on how we did....

Gaz's story
From an early age I was interested in plants and gardens, heavily influenced by my Dad and grandparents who were keen gardeners.

An often repeated story within the family recalls my mother having to apologise to the neighbours when as a toddler I had picked all their flowers (within reach) and planted them in my sandpit, this is usually followed up by a similar story of me picking all of the runner bean flowers in my fathers vegetable plot.

I had my own section in the garden from quite a young age and were given plants by neighbours and family, or bought plants at school or church fates. By my early teens I had taken control of pretty much all of the garden at home, although at this time the garden was a typical English garden with a mix of evergreens, herbaceous perennials and flowering shrubs. Many of the plants were still being given by friends, family and neighbours.

In 2002 before I had met Mark I purchased my first home, which had a very small back garden (12'x30'), which contained no plants at all, just a plain lawn and a small patio. A selection of quick growing shrubs were added to give some interest whilst I concentrated on decorating the house. By the following year with more time available to spend on the garden a small number of more exotic plants were added, I was given a bamboo (Fargesia murielae) and added a selection of cordylines, acers and a palm (Phoenix canariensis) in a pot.

Late in 2004 I purchased a discounted copy of Courtyard and Terrace Gardens by Joan Clifton for the princely sum of £1. I would well recommend obtaining a copy of this book, especially if you have a fairly small plot to create a garden in. One particular garden was an exotic courtyard, which had used bananas (Musa basjoo), various bamboos, cordylines, Trachycarpus fortuneii and other plants with an exotic theme.

Mark's story
Well I did originally come from an exotic location, surrounded by lush, tropical plants with huge leaves and brightly coloured flowers. Growing up, I wasn't into horticulture as such, but my parents were, and they own a beautiful tropical farm as a testament to their love of plants

In 2005 I got hold of the book Architectural Plants by Christine Shaw, and I was instantly in love with the plants featured in there, which are largely exotics. I just think they are stunning and sexy plants and some of them instantly reminded me of the plants that surrounded me in my childhood. I was hooked and I never looked back.

Our Joint story
Our first garden was very small, and although more common exotics were gradually incorporated we felt a bigger garden (and house) would be needed to further pursue our interest.

The idea of having a bigger space to play with was too much to resist so in February 2005 we began our search for a house with a much bigger garden, found one that was perfect for our needs and moved in April 2005. And as they say the rest is history.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Location, Location!

The title can pertain to lots of things when it comes to gardening and horticulture, but on this occasion I will use it to illustrate how the same plant but originating from different locations can exhibit variability which makes them become unique from one another.
One of the exotics we grow is Trochodendron aralioides, the Cartwheel Tree, and we have a couple of specimens in our garden. What's fascinating about them two is that despite being essentially the same plant, they exhibit different characteristics during the winter period. Their provenance is different though, one is an old form originally from Japan, the other a more recent collection from Taiwan.

Both forms look identical in the warmer months but once the cold weather sets in then they start to look different.

The Japanese form, the oldest and most readily available one here in the UK, alot of specimens including ours tend to exhibit a matte Red/Burgundy blush on the leaves during winter....

While the Taiwanese form, a more recent collection from Crug Farm, the leaves remain glossy and a shade of fresh Apple Green. This form is supposed to be faster growing too.

It's all a matter of personal preference, some prefer the one with a Red/Burgundy blush to the leaves which seems more in keeping with the winter season; while others prefer the one retaining the glossy, fresh Apple Green shade which is a welcome sight in the winter months when lots of plants are looking tired.

Personally, I think they are both beautiful plants and very garden worthy!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Predictability brings forth Lovely Gifts!

Every year I find it increasingly difficult to tell others what gifts I would like for Christmas. I guess by being an adult with an income, if there's something that I want I just end up buying them for myself at any point, so I end up running out of ideas for myself come the festive season.

It's well known amongst our friends and colleagues that gardening is our main hobby. And here's where the predictability steps in, whenever I ran out of ideas I just say to them to give me something that's gardening related, easy peasy!

Nursery vouchers are always welcome, as well as garden tools and books. But when it comes to actual plants and accessories it's not so easy as this is quite an individual affair. After all we're focused on a particular style and genre of gardening which limits our choices.

Last year I found myself gravitating towards gardening DVD's, especially about ones featuring exotic plants and gardens. There used to be a gardening channel called UKTV Gardens and we always used to have it on especially if there's nothing else interesting to watch on TV. Having it on nearly constantly you eventually go through all of their programme line ups and watching most shows over and over again. But it's not just about actually watching them, most of time it's just nice to have them as a 'background noise' while you do something else, and it's nice to see some greenery on the screen when I sneak a peak in between activities. Watching a programme the second (or more) time around often brings to your attention details that you easily have missed before.

Plus it's very handy during the winter period, helping you remain inspired during the cold and dark months, in a period where you spend more time indoors than normal. Come summer I rarely get the chance to watch any TV at all!  Unfortunately, due to decreasing sponsorship and perhaps bought on by recession, the channel was axed, leaving a void for a horticultural channel on British TV.

So with not having that many gardening programmes to watch on TV anymore, I found myself looking at gardening DVD's that are available to buy in the UK, which eventually led me to start having a collection of them. And a perfect solution too for that 'What can I buy you for Christmas?' question. So I listed them on an online wishlist post and Santa delivered them.

Predictability brings forth lovely gifts indeed, and with everything I've said, it's just a long introduction to my Gardening DVD collection! Maybe some of them will interest you and find yourself buying (or asking for) a copy too :)

Around the World in 80 Gardens
One of my favourites in my collection, follow Monty Don as he explores 80 beautiful gardens from all over the world. My favourite regions are South America, China and Japan, and South East Asia.

Brilliant Gardens
Featuring the UK's best botanical gardens including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Kew, RHS Wisley, and so much more.

Treasure Gardens
Exploring some of the best gardens of stately homes in the UK, including the likes of Chatsworth House, Blenheim Palace, Leeds Castle, and so much more.

Secret Gardens
Featuring several beautiful gardens in the UK that are not so well known and off the beaten track. Including the likes of Kensington Roof Garden, Shennington, Brantwood, and so much more.

A Year At Kew
I watched all three series as it was shown on the BBC a few years back, so it's nice to have a copy of all episodes and revisit them again. A must for admirers of Kew Gardens, it gives a good insight about this magnificent botanical garden.

Ok, not exactly a garden as such but a very exotic group of islands. Tilda Swinton is a perfect narrator for this series.

Secret Gardens/More Secret Gardens
Presented by Alan Titchmarsh, it features sixteen beautiful and rather secluded gardens.

The Geoff Hamilton BBC Collection
I regard the late Geoff Hamilton as still one of the best gardener/gardening presenter to have ever graced British TV. And there's something warming watching him present a show.

Gardens of the National Trust
A series featuring numerous gardens belonging to the National Trust. Presented by Alan Titchmarsh, some of the gardens featured are simply spectacular.

The Private Life of Plants
By David Attenborough. A fantastic series that I love watching over and over again. The series was made in the 90's but it doesn't look dated at all, rather timeless and thoroughly fascinating.

Wild China
As a fan of exotic plants, the feature on the Yunnan province where several new exotic plants have come from is fascinating to watch. Hopefully we'll get to explore that region ourselves soon!

Gardens of the World Boxset
Not as extensive as Monty Don's offering but features famous gardens from Cornwall, South Africa, and Ireland.

The Eden Project - The Gardeners of Eden
A two part series profiling 60 strong team of gardeners responsible for maintaining the Tropical and Temperate Biomes of the Eden Project

I'll put this list on it's own section on the blog in the next few weeks. I'm sure we'll be getting more gardening DVD's in the future so I'll just update the list as they come along.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Quick Treat for the New Year

The new year is finally here, woohoo! Looking forward to another fruitful year in the garden, and the eventual arrival of spring!

We've had a lovely Christmas and New Year's celebration, but it's also nice that the festive season is finally over and everything will go back to normal mode in the next few days. No more thinking about gifts and food, and the mad rushes that accompany it, I can go back to concentrating mainly about the garden which is a pleasant thing!

One snag we had during the holidays (or should I say two) is that both of us caught a bug that made us both feel very ill in the past few days. Most likely it's the Flu virus that's doing the rounds here lately, but whatever it is, it is a nasty one and I've never felt so run down like that before. We're both on the mend now thankfully, but the effects are lingering on a bit, mainly tiredness and a feeling of exhaustion, but hopefully by the end of this week we're both feeling a 100% again.

So for the new year we decided to go on a quick visit to Kew Gardens, as well as check out the winter sales at the nearby Palm Centre.

View inside The Temperate House at Kew
Kew Gardens is reasonably near us and we both have a yearly pass, given to us as a traditional Christmas present from Gaz's parents, so we always make an effort to visit the place several times a year. It's both a source of learning and pleasure, inspiration and much needed green fix during the deepest depths of winter, courtesy of the numerous (and large) glasshouses to be found there, housing an impressive collection of exotic plants.

National Collection of Trachycarpus at The Palm Centre
Afterwards, we dropped by the Palm Centre to check out their winter plant sales. As the namesake indicates, it is a good source of hardy palms as well as a few other exotic plants. The sales were generally good, nothing too unusual as such but we went home with a couple of bargain palms, a decent sized Trachycarpus fortunei and a Rhapidophyllum hystrix. And with the latter being so slow growing, it was a good price for that size indeed.

So a couple of new plants for the new year, and that's just the start. More new goodies will be trickling in the next few months, all part and parcel of developing a garden.

A few more shots from Kew.