An Early Autumn Forgotten Post: Propagating: 2 & 3

For days the leaves have been softly and silently falling and everywhere there is the growing sense of gentle, gradual decay. At the allotment some of  the apples are still glowing on the trees, only outshone by the yellow of the quinces, but the air is scented by the fermenting, ciderishness of the fallers all slowly rotting on the ground. The nights are arriving unexpectedly early and despite the last few Indian summer days, there is a chill in the air. It’s strange that all of this feels energy renewing and satisfying.

Yes, the developing plot is an overgrown, tumbling, toppling mess, but there is the rest of Autumn and Winter to sort that out. Not so with the allotment where yet another inspection is looming next weekend. But despite this my attention has been stolen by propagation. Three courses in one year and lots of extra knowledge to synthesise. The first at Green and Gorgeous in March perhaps set an impossibly high bar. Just one highlight of many: all nine dahlia basal cuttings taken there developed into beautiful, productive plants – flowering before the ones I had left in the ground. Now I have the knowledge to do this again on my own plants next Spring and, of course, to produce more dahlias than I could possibly use, but how lovely.

The second course was in September with Derry Watkins at her home next to her excellent nursery, Special Plants. Set up first with the most delicious cake I’ve ever tasted, we had a intensive day learning some of the tricks of her trade. Here, under her very watchful eye, we learned to take cuttings  precisely with the right tools – razor blades and Stanley knives – and what to do with them afterwards. In the afternoon, we were given free time to take cuttings from the plants in her beautiful garden. Now in my greenhouse, I have a selection of healthy rooted cuttings.


Just one of the healthy cuttings from Derry Watkins’ workshop

Last Friday the third and final course with Rosy Hardy at Hardy’s Cottage Plants was two intense hours of learning. Lots of my fixed ideas were debunked in a fast-moving and information-packed morning. Who knew that seedlings should be pricked out so small, with barely a true leaf showing – definitely not me. Also a surprise was how small tip cuttings should be. I won’t be bothering with hormone rooting powder from now on either and on Derry and Rosy’s advice penstemon cuttings will be taken by the end of August.


Nepeta root cuttings ready for potting on

Perhaps this is why this early Autumn has felt so especially life affirming – it’s not just the harvest: it’s also the greenhouse shelves with all their promise of what is to come next year.

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A Festival and Flowers in Their Hair

The plot (I am still developing) is set in the  beautiful, sheltered grounds of my friends’ house nestled amongst trees in the well named Happy Valley. Last weekend, on one of the hottest days of the year, an excellent and joyful fundraising Music Festival took place there, organised by these forever energetic and generous friends. Not wanting the plot to be a sore weedy thumb, I tried to nurture it into more flowery shape before the event. And I nearly got there with just a few small sections here and there not planted up.


An ammi and antirrhinum section of the plot

Asked if I wanted to run a stall, I was keen to contribute somehow, but thought it unlikely anyone at at a festival starting at midday and going late into the night would want to carry round a bunch of flowers. And then from somewhere came the idea of making and selling floral crowns to raise money for charity. Where this idea came from is puzzling as I have never been to a music festival (perhaps evidence I need to get out more) and I hadn’t the faintest clue how to make a floral crown. So it was agreed, that was what I would do…


An abundance of the best blue cornflowers waiting to be made into crowns

For weeks before, I concentrated on developing the plot: weeding, planting, deadheading mulching and then, as the festival got closer, I realised that I would have to face up to the fact that learning how to make a floral crown was crucial. My daughter in sympathetic mode offered to help. A few Youtube tutorials later; a chat to a florist supplies company and an evening with a lovely friend and my lovely daughter practising and we were nearly there. Another kind friend dropped in to make wire and stemtex circles for the crown and surprisingly to me we made some crowns which looked plausible. The short life of the flowers out of water meant we couldn’t make many beforehand and there was only so much room in the fridge.


Floral crowns all around my hat


And another

On the day of the festival we set off wondering whether we would sell any and so started by giving some away, but being by the Gin sellers might have helped as we were pretty busy from 12.00 until 7.00 that evening when we had to stop. By then, my confidently creative daughter had completely got the knack. We had used up the buckets  and buckets of flowers conditioned the day before and  finally there were absolutely no more flowers left to cut on the plot. Lots of time left to dance into the dark. It was a happy day in a happy place and it was good to be a very small part of it.

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Propagating Plants: Part 1

So it’s here – the time of year when you can never find enough room for the seeds you have sown, the cuttings you have taken and the multiple divisions you have made from your plants. No where to sit in the garden as chairs, benches and table are covered with pots; barely anywhere to stand in the greenhouse with seed trays, modules and plants everywhere. Overwintered plants are spilling out from the cloches at the front of the house and it still feels as if I haven’t and can’t do enough propagating. Amidst all the pleasure and abundance is this nagging feeling that the Spring is spinning away from me.

As usual there have been  successes and frustrating failures with seeds that have excitingly popped up after just a couple of days – cosmos – and others that have completely failed to germinate – too many to mention. Can never quite work out why that is and so to learn more and curb my characteristic haphazard approach, I booked a day’s course on propagating at Green and Gorgeous which turned out to be absolutely wonderful and probably the most generous course I have ever been on. Generous because I returned home with a potential cutting garden, new knowledge and many useful tips to refine and improve what I  do. There were also many reminders of what I already know, but stubbornly don’t do consistently.


Healthy, rooted dahlia cuttings from course

The first being to only use fresh seed and to buy these new every year. This is something that I understood years ago, but somehow still can’t stick to – hence the waste of time watching bare compost resolutely remain bare compost before I throw it onto the garden and start again. So a ruthless sort out and throwing away of old seeds is on the agenda to make sure there is only fresh seed left.

And then all these fresh packets are going to be kept in airtight containers with silica gel in the cool – perhaps even smuggled into the fridge if no one is looking. That definitely means not abandoning seed tins in the heat of the greenhouse.

The first part of the day with Rachel at Green & Gorgeous was spent sowing seeds in trays and modules: tiny seed in the trays and larger in modules – all sprinkled with vermiculite. So now, 3 weeks on I am pricking out the antirrhinums and potting on the sunflowers and zinnias. Ammi Majus, Malope and others have germinated and will soon be ready to move on.


Antirrhinum seedlings waitng to be pricked out

In short time before a break for delicious biscuits and coffee, we had been sown seeds for hundreds of plants –  very satisfying and that was just the start.


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Spring has Sprung

This is the first time I have really noticed the suddenness that can be the start of Spring because it does feel as if everything has sprung up five times quicker than I would have expected. It seems just a few days ago that the daffodils were diffidently poking through the cold clay of my garden and now most of them are fully and triumphantly in flower everywhere I look and none of them seem to be lingering very long at the bud stage. The warm sun today has encouraged even more out. Even the narcissi at the plot which looked so unpromising last year, with only sparse green leaves, are throwing up buds this year.


Bright in the sunshine

And then there are the tulips which are are almost hurtling into maturity with buds beginning to show inside the unfurling ribbons of leaves. They are popping up in odd rows all over the plot as well as in the garden. There must have been some system or pattern in my head when I planted them, but it is very hard to work out now what that might have been.The  Abu Hassan with their beautiful red and yellow are coming back for the third year and the others appearing will be a lovely surprise as yet again my predictable unreliability with labels leaves the emerging rows anonymous.

For the first year, something at the plot has eaten a few of the newly emerging tulip shoots. Not enough to be a disaster, but annoying if there ends up being a squirrel problem there as well as the garden where so many of my bulbs have been dug up, eaten or played with by the local thug squirrels.

Although there is lots of Spring growth evident in the garden: hellebores, forget-me-nots, clumps of gentle yellow primroses and bulbs, there isn’t much colour yet at the plot. Lots of promise though, with lupins miraculously surviving the Winter and early slugs and snails; self sown hesperis  looking healthy and poking through the earth to test the dahlias, their tubers feel consolingly solid despite all the rain.


Hellebores at home in the garden


A four hour stint of weeding and mulching the beds at the weekend has got some space ready to welcome the blue cornflowers growing on in their pots at home. Spring has sprung alright and started the manic cycle of seed sowing, potting on and planting out which will keep me running round in circles for the next few months.



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Early Spring Colour

This February I had enough early Spring bulbs and flowers to take to two local markets which was cheering, not just because of the splashes of colour and hope of more, but also because I got to meet and chat with lots of other plant lovers – new and regular customers.


Bright yellow crocus on the Homesown stall

Wasn’t sure before setting out on the last two weekends whether anybody would want to buy my bulbs in pots. Especially as it was cold and actually snowing on the first weekend as my stall shivered outside. But probably this was an advantage as in the grey and cold dankness of the day the purple and blues and yellows of the flowers almost glowed. Crocus just on the verge of popping up flowers and daffodils in bud were all popular.


Iris reticulata, Carolina on the Homesown stall

So next Autumn, to cheer my spirits and get me out at the stall earlier than my usual  Mid-March, I will definitely be planting more of the same and also trying lots of new and different varieties. What did I learn for next year? To plant lots more Iris histroides,  George (perhaps 3 or 4 times as many) as it was a complete attention grabber in its sumptuous purple. Blue and yellow Iris reticulata Carolina was also much liked  and next year I will try the sophisticated Iris reticulata, Katherine Hodgkin loved by garden writers if not quite so much by me.


Iris Histroides, George

Just how many beauties there are in the early Iris family was made clear at the RHS Early Spring Show (see below). So next year I will definitely be experimenting with more. You probably can’t have too many:  the  few left over lovelies are looking good in pots outside my door and once they have faded will be slipped into the front garden bed for next year.


All around the garden and in pots, forgotten from last year, there are daffodils appearing and growing inches a day. The lovely white Thalia and jaunty Tete a Tete along with W P Milner are all shooting into life. Not sure now why I decided it wasn’t a good idea to order more last Autumn, but next Autumn will definitely enjoy thinking about which new varieties to try as they are such a spirit raiser when the tulips are only just pushing up their beaky leaves and are a long way off from flowering.

The wind and cold of the last two days has put a brake on the planting of seeds for me. It all seems a bit too chill to expect tomatoes, chillies or cosmos to poke up – even in the greenhouse. But despite everything the weather has thrown at them, the spring bulbs outside my door are still perfectly resilient and may that be a lesson for me.



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February At Last


It feels that February has been a long time coming and there have been impatient weeks waiting to plant seeds. Probably still too early, but late last week before the rain smudged it out, there seemed to be more light and a passing whisper of Spring. The last two days have even been bright and warm enough to wake up the crocuses. The bulbs in small terracotta pots at the south facing front of the house have been frozen (sometimes literally) in the same position for weeks, but seem poised to go as soon as the sun comes out for any length of time. One or two have taken their chances and flowered already.


Crocus giving hope of Spring

The tulips are just poking through the ground so today am taking the seed packets at their word and will start to sow the ones which have Feb as a start date. Will also carry on with the steady Winter planting of sweetpeas. This year I will be trying new varieties recommended by experts:  Green and Gorgeous and Floret , both professional flower growers who are full of knowledge and expertise and  are generous with their advice and recommendations. If you can, and you live in travelling distance of Oxfordshire, try and go to a Masterclass at Green and Gorgeous which is a truly lovely place.


A beautiful blue row of abundant cornflowers at the Green and Gorgeous open day last June

Floret Flowers is in America, but the website offers excellent guidance on how to grow different cut flowers. Tried to keep to the advice learned at G&G Sweetpea Masterclass, but my chaotic life has meant I didn’t manage to plant on the first of the month starting in November. This year started later in December and have instead tried to keep to the rhythm of planting another packet of seeds as soon as the previous lot have germinated. Just about keeping to this; Hi Scent (aka April in Paris), Gwendoline, Nimbus, Mollie Rilestone and Cathy all on their way, with others to follow. Not sure how much they are enjoying the only barely above freezing greenhouse, but they should be tough by March (if they survive).

So along with sweetpeas, today there is going to be viola planting as these are fast becoming a new love. Heartsease for its jolly edible flowers and its obliging willingness to keep on flowering almost anywhere; Viola corsica, to add to the truly lovely plants with their bright purple flowers that I bought last year from Special Plants and Viola lutea splendens which is a heart-lifting deep golden-yellow.

That’s the plan, but then there are all those other jobs  like clearing dank, shady beds at home in the garden or taking just one or two more pelargonium cuttings or weeding at the plot – not to mention the allotment. As always there’s a danger in worrying too much about that endless list and not simply accomplishing the job at the top. Just need to remind myself of those warmer days in March and April when planting out small tough homesown plants gives such satisfaction and pleasure.



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January’s Itchy Flower Growing Fingers

So the skies are blue, but the ground is frozen. The light is increasing day by day, but there is still probably not enough to be planting seeds other than sweetpeas (as everything I read warns me). A quiet month for gardening if you don’t want to follow the wise advice of gardening experts to use your time to sharpen your tools and wash your pots. Yes, ordering seeds is  more alluring advice frequently given, but I really want to plant them and grow things. But too early for hardy annuals which will grow too leggy they say. But hold on,  I have read more than once that antirrhinums might work, needing, as they do,  a long growing season of 20 weeks. Already have a crowd of white ones, Autumn sown and surviving in the greenhouse, and have beautiful bright ones to try now –  so half a packet, just to see…


Autumn sown antirrhinums looking surprisingly cosy in greenhouse

Two weeks ago, when the weather was milder, I went to the plot to sheepishly plant a big box full of tulip bulbs. Cross with myself that I was doing this in January and not earlier, and also cross that this situation had come about because I  had succumbed to the greed of ordering more in early December when I had actually managed to plant all the others promptly and soon after they arrived in November. It was the Sarah Raven sale and they seemed such a bargain. Flu, Christmas and other unavoidable events meant that I didn’t plant them until January, but they will have got the cold frosty weather they need, so will just wait and see.


Another piece of luck: according to expert advice on how to grow pelargoniums, which I chanced upon while dawdling round the web, cuttings can be taken at any time. So today am testing this out by slicing some of the new green growth from my Rose of Attar and Sweet Mimosa plants which have been spending the Winter on our windowsills.


Sweet Mimosa – the mother plant before taking cuttings


Meanwhile, outside the house and inside the greenhouse, the small bulbs, planted in Autumn, are all poised to shoot up into growth, and in some cases, to flower.


Scilla, crocus and iris reticulata poised 

With the sun out and the light so bright and clean, it is hard to remember that there is a week to go before February and that March is weeks and not days away. Still, going to double check my seed packets to see if there is anything else I can justify planting now.

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