Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Working with Existing Structures

When we moved into our home the garden was a key consideration, and for an urban garden we ended up with quite a good sized plot.

The house was built in the mid 1930's and so has had many owners over the years, who will have lived, worked and played in the house and garden. The last but one owner, Richard, was very keen at DIY, and we understand an electrician by trade, but also a keen carpenter. He made various alterations to the house, such as an attic room and added several buildings and structures to the garden. Whilst some of his landscaping has long since gone, many other aspects remain, and I'm sure if he were to see the garden again there would be elements he would still recognise.

As you enter the garden one of the first structures that we are greeted by is what we refer to as the "Church Gate", a pergola with a tiled roof. We assume the tiles are original to the house, as the the house was re-roofed with concrete tiles at some point, but some neighbouring houses still have slates. We did have to add the finishing ridge tiles as Richard hadn't quite completed the roof.

The next structure to survive is a red pergola, when we moved in this was a mass of ivy, and Mark spent a significant amount of time reclaiming the structure from the vegetation. We added the bright red paint for a splash of colour! We need to undertake some restoration to the roof timbers later this year as one of the wooden cross supports is showing signs of decay.  
The pergola led up to what was once a Koi pond (yes the garden had Koi in its distant past) however this did not hold water when we moved in, and we understand from neighbours that the pond had failed some years before. We filled this pond in to create our middle patio area.
The Middle Patio
Continuing down the path led to a large garden shed. This was a fantastic wooden outbuilding, fully insulated plaster boarded on the inside, with double glazing and its own electrical supply. Richard had used this as a carpentry workshop, and neighbours mentioned they would see him working on his carvings and carpentry late into the night!
The shed before we added the verandah
We added a verandah to the shed a couple of years ago (See here for photos of the construction) and now have a sheltered and secluded place to sit and enjoy a cold glass of something (or a hot mug of tea in the winter!).
A relaxing place to sit
Finally at the end of the garden, Richard had a pig pen and sty, keeping Vietnamese pot bellied pigs - apparently a gift from his mother in law. According to our neighbour, the first pig arrived pregnant, and promptly gave birth to a litter of piglets. Unaccustomed to keeping one pig let along a ready made herd, Richard wanted to re-home the piglets as soon as possible, unfortunately for Richard, events over took him and there was a temporary ban on animal movements due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. So for several months what is now our garden more closely resembled a farmyard than a garden (Richard also kept chickens and rabbits!). Once the ban was lifted all the pigs were relocated to a local children's petting farm. The rabbits escaped and a fox got the chickens. The gardens short life as a smallholding was over.

We couldn't come up with any good ideas on conversion, so the pig sty came down. It was built from sections of wooden telegraph poles, so these were recycled in the garden. The pig pen itself had been concreted (and this was 8-10 inches thick in places) so we decided this was too big a job to remove, instead we built our first koi pool and created another patio area. Secluded at the bottom of the garden, its perfect for barbecues, with the smoke a long way from the neighbours!
A secluded spot for a barbecue

A view towards the existing Koi Pond
In this area was also a normal garden shed which is used to house the filters for the existing koi pond as well as a secure tool shed.

We were rather fortunate to inherit several good quality structures and sheds in the garden, all of which still enhance the garden today. Whilst much of the planting has changed, its nice to know there is still a connection to people who had called our home their home.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

I See White

Sun, glorious sun! The sun was generous enough to grace us with its presence over the weekend, reinforcing that spring like feeling that most of us are already having now that we're at the tail end of February. And with the sun and mild weather means lots of time was spent in the garden, wonderful!

And if I'm going to sum up our weekend with just two words, they would be 'Sunny' and 'White'. 

White, lots of it! And with the generous sun white becomes even whiter. White, white, white!

We deliberately planted only white Crocus on one of our raised beds and they have started to come out and bloom in succession. White that are a welcome sight!

Apart from the cheerful Crocus I saw more white as I started to give some of the fences a final coat of white silicone paint. I've always thought that the primer was bright white already until I started to paint the final coat and the difference is very noticeable. 

It wasn't that warm a day but painting under the sun made you feel warm, and with the sun shining directly over the newly painted surfaces they dried almost instantly. The only thing was, painting white under direct sun can be strenuous to the eyes, like staring at a computer monitor for a long time and I had to take regular breaks to rest them. 

A couple of our friendly neighbours also came out to say hi. They were curious what we were doing and was pleased to see our progress. Here's one of them peeking over the wall..

Sunlight and white, a lovely combination that can lift your spirits!

Mark :-)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Overwintering Exotic Plants

Like many exotic gardening enthusiasts one of the challenges we face is how best to overwinter plants indoors. We all think about the cold being a problem but adequate heat is just one aspect. If we neglect some of the other aspects then the plants may survive indoors or in the greenhouse but will look pretty poor by the spring. While tropical plants far from the equator are outside of their natural climate, with a little effort we can ensure the growth and health of our plants overwintered indoors or in the greenhouse. Here are our thoughts on the considerations to maintain a suitable environment for such plants overwintered indoors.

Adequate Light 
While tropical plants live in climates that experience direct sunlight year round, many of these plants thrive in the shade of larger trees or are shielded from the harsh sun by the heavy rainforest canopy. Therefore, the shade of the indoors can actually be an ideal environment for them to flourish. For best results, consider the light levels needed for each plant and if appropriate place plants in a room where it will receive plenty of light but avoid putting it in the path of direct, intense sunlight as this may be harmful to the leaves. We overwinter some plants in a large insulated outbuilding, so only a small amount of heat is needed but light levels are low. We tend to place ferns and palms tolerant of low light levels in here, but add an low wattage grow light on a timer to come on and give the plants a boost.

When putting plants back outside again after winter remember they have had lower light levels, and place them in a shady location initially to acclimatise with the higher light levels experienced. We use the side passage next to the kitchen as it is north facing, after a few days to a week in this spot we know that the overwintered plants will be safe to move to their final summer homes.

Healthy Soil 
Exotic plants are accustomed to the fertile earth of tropical climates so choose high quality soil for potted specimens, and consider the right type of compost. We tend to use a general multi purpose compost for most plants, but will adapt this as needed. Occasionally adding a weak fertilizer to your plant will keep it healthy and growing, but keep in mind the light levels, as too much feeding leads to weak leggy growth. Often it can be better to wait until spring and start the feeding regime as plants go back outside. While many plants from the tropics can grow to be quite large, many will still flourish in a smaller pot. Transplant them to larger pots when necessary, but remember to select pots that do not have too much excess space. Keeping pot sizes down also helps when moving them about, having too large a pot can literally be a pain in the back!

Warm Temperatures 
One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy tropical plants over winter is temperature. Climates near the equator are warm year round and exotic plants require this same constant warmth indoors or a minimum overnight temperature in order to thrive. Electric radiators offer a convenient way to create this type of environment, and with thermostatic controls you can ensure the heater keeps the greenhouses at the correct temperature, and not too much above (and certainly not below!). We use an electric heater in each greenhouse and in the outbuilding keeping temperatures in there generally above 5C (41f). The more tender plants are kept in the house, usually at a temperature above 16 degrees Celsius (60f). With the greenhouses it is important to have a backup in the case of a power cut, and we have paraffin burners available should the need arise. 

We also insulate the greenhouses with bubble wrap, to trap that heat inside, the outbuilding we have was already insulated so that helps keep the heat in and the electricity bill down!

Proper Watering
It is easy to make the mistake of giving their plants too much or too little water. While tropical plants require regular watering, they also need time to dry out naturally or their roots will begin to rot. Ensure your plant is in a pot that has adequate holes for drainage. The water regime needs to be adjusted for each plant (and location). Those in the greenhouses/outbuilding are kept at a lower temperature and need less water, the last thing you need is for them to be sat in cold/cool damp soil for any length of time. We let these get quite dry and then water very sparingly. The plants in the house need a different regime, with centrally heated houses the air will be very dry and as it is warm the plants will usually stay in active growth and need more water. In particular some palms we water a couple of times a week.

We also have a number of arid plants and those in the greenhouses are not watered all winter, only starting to water again when the weather improves, the arid plants in the house are watered but far more sparingly than the lush plants.

Correct Humidity
Tropical climates often include a significant amount of humidity and the drier conditions of the house are not ideal. If you have plants in a heated conservatory then you could replicate this moisture by adding a humidifier. In the main house plants will have to cope with the conditions of the home, but choose a location for plants where there is naturally more moisture such as the kitchen or bathroom. We keep several plants in the hallway as it doesn't get as warm/dry and when the front door is opened damper winter air will come in. We tend to place some aloes and agaves into the lounge, where they really seem to enjoy the warm dry air, so much so that some of them look better in the house than they do outside in the garden!

The opposite problem exists with the greenhouses, with it being cooler you don't want high humidity, we use electric heaters partly for the dry air they give, and also open the doors on warm sunny days to get fresh air and a breeze into them. In the outbuilding we had found that if the doors were kept closed for too long then you could get some mould forming with the damp cool air, but with regular fresh air and a fan blowing this is much less of a problem than it once was.

This winter the weather has mostly been quite kind to us, so we haven't had to use too much electricity to keep the greenhouses at a suitable minimum temperature, and so far everything is looking fine. Some plants that were in for the very cold spell have even started to go back outside. 

Not long now until Spring!


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pretty, Painted, Persicarias!

Spring is almost here and I am starting to daydream already of the new plants we will have for this year. I am also looking forward to the return of my favourite perennials after their winter slumber, gracing our garden again with their lovely presence. And one of these perennials I'm looking forward to seeing again are the Persicarias.

Persicarias, persicarias! They are definitely one of my favourite group of plants in the garden. There are different types of course, with different habits and appearances but the ones with beautifully marked and patterned foliage I am particularly fond of.

Persicaria sp. Kunming
As a mainly 'foliage' gardener, I am always on the lookout for plants with unique leaves that can add interest to the garden especially along side other foliage plants. And those with unique leaf markings, pattern, and colours are most appreciated as they can help add a different dimension to the planting scheme.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Continuing the Filter House

Over the last couple of weekends we have been able to get some more work done on our filter house. Pretty much all the recent work has been done inside, such as getting the plasterboard onto the frame and now it is starting to look more like a room!

The other big change was putting the glass units back into the window frames. We were fortunate to obtain double glazed windows, which had been removed from a house that was having an extension built. These will certainly give the filter house a higher insulation level (plus will help prevent the sound of the pumps from being heard outside), as well as looking quite smart too!

The walls have all been lined with glass fibre insulation, again to keep any heat in and also prevent us from hearing any noise outside the filter house.

We are not far off getting this finished now, a little bit more boarding out to do on the inside and then to finish off the floor and door and then it will be ready for fitting the filter equipment.

I guess we could have bought a self assembly garden shed for this project, but given the overall design we felt a purpose built filter house would be the right solution for this project. 


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Almost Spring!

Sunshine, always lovely to see and a welcome sight at this time of the year when we're already at the latter part of winter and spring is just around the corner. Spring is almost here, almost if you simply base it on the amount of sunshine we've been having for the past few days (except for Saturday) but the moment you step outside you are also reminded not to let your guard down especially today when it was just two degrees Celsius outside at ten in the morning. Nevermind, wrapped up warm with a hot cup of tea at hand and basking under the sun that spring feeling instantly returns.

And it helps when you see some of the spring flowers in the garden, like this Iris that I spotted in bloom just today.

Iris histrioides 'Katharine Hodgkin'
Iris histrioides 'Katharine Hodgkin'

Or this Aloe spiralling away and seemingly smiling back.

Aloe polyphylla
On the weekdays that have just past it's been mild and very sunny so you can't help but feel that spring is just around the corner. And it puts you in the mood to garden too, except for the fact that weekdays means we have to go to work and hence cannot garden. Nevermind, at least there's the weekend. But the weather has been a bit of a tease and come Saturday all that sun disappeared, shaded by heavy clouds with lots of rain and it felt nippy again. Oh well, from spring like to autumnal in twenty four hours. And it just has to be on the weekend too, when we actually had time to garden! 

Anyway, we still did loads including a group visit to see the lovely pond and Koi collection of one of the members of our local Koi Club. We all had a fantastic time despite the weather, it was nice to see everyone as well as Tim's pond and stunning Koi in the flesh, not to mention the tea and cakes that were served, yum!

Photo from www.kangeikoiclub.com
Sunday was much better, although still nippy at least it was dry and very sunny so we were able to do a bit more in the garden. We did a mixture of things which included some plant tidy up, filling up the third raised bed with more soil, digging a trench for the foundations of a small retaining wall, and preparing the recycled scaffold boards to be used as decking in our new garden.

And then there were the Dahlias which are now potted up and stored indoors to warm them up and encourage them to sprout.

It's almost spring...almost but not quite so best to keep our guard up just in case. But at least it's not long to wait now, and there's a 'sunshiny' feeling at the very thought of it.

Mark :-)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Galanthus 'Jacquenetta'

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

RHS Plant and Design Show 2012

The RHS are holding their annual Plant and Design show at the moment (14 and 15 February 2012) in the Lawrence Hall in London.

So, once again we headed for Central London by car, the only time in the year we venture into the Congestion Zone is for this show. Public transport would be quicker, however anyone who has struggled home by the underground or train with bags of shopping will know how difficult that can be at rush hour. Let alone with several large plants to get home!

This has become something of an annual trip for us (see here for last years visit), and once again we were not to be disappointed.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Idea Bank

Inspiration can be found anywhere and everywhere, as long as you don't just look but also see, as well as constantly maintaining an open mind that is receptive to new ideas even if it comes from the unlikeliest of places. And even better if you have a camera at hand to capture these images as you see them!

On my laptop there is a folder called 'The Idea Bank' where I store mostly photos and images I have taken myself; of places and objects I have seen that I find inspirational for a certain look, or a good idea for a future project in our garden. There are also several images there that I have saved from various websites I have visited in the past that I consider to be inspiring or have great ideas that may be applicable to us. 

I regard this folder as a personal reference file, a collection of images that I dip into every so often whenever I find myself in need of ideas and inspiration, or simply just to refresh our memory of notable things we have seen before. It is extremely useful especially when planning for new projects or designing and thinking about ways to be creative in the garden.

Not all of the images in 'The Idea Bank' are immediate things of beauty. Some are photos of places and objects that were taken to capture the overall essence of the subject matter, with the form and aesthetics fully appreciable in each individual photo. Whilst others are detailed shots, functional in purpose that are meant more to help in creating something similar which will hopefully lead to something good.

There are numerous photos in that folder, almost a hundred but I never let it expand any more than a manageable size,  by culling some of the older images as I gradually add some more, sometimes even trying to remove more than I have added at times. Even in a computer folder clutter is not a good idea, and unlike a real bank quantity is not always a good thing either. Quality over quantity, what you're banking on are ideas and not just the number of images.

In preparing this blog post I had to revisit these images again, which I found an enjoyable experience in its own right. Some of the photos have served their purpose already and have been referred to in previous projects (and may remain there for nostalgic reasons); some have become totally inapplicable and are candidates for culling; whilst others will remain there long term for possible use in the future.

The following images (only the ones I've taken myself) are just a few of the images in our Idea Bank, a sneak peak of what's inside there...

Exotic plants on a white background, looks familiar? We've pretty much decided on this combination until we saw this display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens which reinforced the idea. I do like the trellis on the wall and was an influence when putting up trellises on top of some of the fence panels. Instead of lush, green foliage plants we used glaucous leafed instead (on one raised bed at least).

Taken inside the tropical biome of the Eden Project, it is one of the inspirations when we were still constructing the jungle hut near the bottom of our garden. We played with the idea of using galvanised sheets and putting up a metal 'shipping' sign at the front of the hut. Galvanised sheets are widely used in the tropics for jungle huts and rural outbuildings, thus in their own right would look authentic if used as such here. However, we opted against using them in the end as its aesthetics are more likely to be misconstrued by others rather than appreciated. So out with the galvanised sheets, but the influence of the shipping sign remained but has been substituted by several vintage metal 'Coca Cola' signs instead.

A wooden raised bed/planter like this might look good on the top patio nearest to the house if we decide to give it a makeover.

Agave attenuata or any other succulent sat on the mouth of a big urn looks great! This photo was taken at Reid's Palace Hotel in Madeira. It's easy enough to replicate this at home by filling a large urn with polystyrene, leaving just enough space so the pot of agave will be concealed and only the foliage will be visible. You can then easily lift off the pot in the autumn for storage under glass before the winter chill.

I saw this metal pole pergola in one of the gardens at Madeira and thought it looked effective, sturdy, and easier to assemble than an all wooden pergola. However, unless you buy this as a kit (and kits tend to be expensive) then it has to be custom made which makes it also expensive and I have doubts about its longevity in a British climate. And will it be aesthetically pleasing or just look functional? It depends on the overall construction of course but I'll never find out. A good idea in Madeira but not so good in our own garden.

I loved this feature, so simple yet so effective in creating a soothing, moving water sound in the garden and the planting was just right and looked natural. This sort of feature can be easily replicated by a simple set-up and you don't even need a big pool to achieve this. And you can customise it with your own planting! Maybe something we can replicate ourselves in the future.

I saw this potted display in Cambridge Botanical Gardens a few years ago and did something similar shortly after with my collection of little succulents in small pots. Much the same as above, I filled big pots to the rim with sand and placed small pots of succulents in groups on top of them so they were displayed on different levels. I only did this display for one year and haven't done it again since. Most of those succulents are either gone now or have grown and in big pots themselves.

This pathway looked good and is easy enough to replicate yourself, time consuming yes but potentially an inexpensive hard landscaping option.

A living wall that I absolutely adore and has a sense of permanency which most living walls now do not have. Ok, it's not a living wall as such but a stone walling that has deliberate random gaps where appropriate plants can be inserted, establish themselves and hopefully thrive. It looks natural, similar in principle to old stone walls where plants manage to find its way in between gaps and thrive there with little human intervention. Such a 'living wall' has limited choices of plants that can be used as there's no irrigation and very little organic matter will make its way in between those gap. But it becomes a very low maintenance living wall that looks great too. I don't think we have anywhere in our garden we can do this now, but who knows, maybe in the future. A long term investment in our 'The Idea Bank' but if you find this right in your garden now then I think it will look great.

So how do you finish off a tiled roofing? A close up shot was needed to give us an idea...

A chunky wooden bench, so simple yet so effective. And seems easy enough to do one yourself and is at home to any style of garden.

One of the newer additions to our 'The Idea Bank', a reclining urn with plants spilling out of it. Maybe one to add in our garden this year.

A climber doesn't only have to climb walls to look good. You can include obelisks and pillars within your borders and train choice climbers to cover them as part of your display. Instant height too! Or like the one in this photo you can put one in a pot for an instant tall display.

A charming water feature in one of the Cornish gardens we've visited before. Simple in principle, a plantless pool with reasonably clear water and something similar can even house a few goldfish as an extra interest to this water feature. I'm not too keen on the frog sitting on top but the rest of the stone water return looks great.

So there you go, a little preview of what's inside our 'The Idea Bank'. Highly likely you have something similar already on your computer even if you call it something else, if you do then it would be good to hear about (or even better see them in a post on your own blog!). Inspiration really is everywhere and it's free, use it your own advantage and you'll reap lots of pretty rewards.

Mark :-)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Tropical Extravaganza

Every year Kew Gardens holds what they call their Tropical Extravaganza, which is basically an excuse to dress up the Princess of Wales Conservatory with hundreds of orchids, and other exotic flowers and foliage. There’s no pretence about the show being to exhibit botanically unusual or rare plants but to put on a wild show of colour in the middle of winter. 

Given the cold weather outside it was a very welcome break when Mark and I entered the glasshouse, the warmth of the heat and warmth of the displays was quite a nice lift. I have to be honest that this style of exotic planting is not what we would want to recreate at home, its a bit over the top, and in places reminded us of the wedding arches you see from Beach weddings. Nice for someone else but not for us

However that said, the overall impact was impressive, and the colour and vibrancy of the individual plants were like sweets in an old fashioned sweet shop, and like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop we dashed from one to another. Perhaps that’s exaggerating a little bit here, but we certainly spent our time admiring many of the individual blooms as well as the overall effect. Its fair to say that some of these blooms are somewhat brash, but many have a real delicate nature to them.

An entrance of pure Orchids. It took a while to get a clear shot as everyone else was getting in the way!
Unfortunately many of the orchids were not named, but some of them were. Where we were able to identify a plant the names are added below, hopefully we have the correct name with the correct plant.