Sunday 28 October 2012

I can't help it.

Ever since I was very young I have enjoyed drawing geometric shapes,  instead of using colour I would pick up my ruler, compass and pencil. It was a major reason I went on to study civil engineering, with the surveying and technical drawing being my best subjects.  So getting to design a garden (and working with an architect on the extension to the house) is very exciting.

I have been trying not to think about it as we are nowhere near ready to start any real planning, but it doesn't work.  You lot don't help, yes you readers who have blogs with beautiful gardens, photos and lots of creative ideas.  It seems I can't turn on my computer at the moment without someone showing something that gets me thinking about what I want in my garden. Perhaps the ultimate was a recent post by A growing obsession, on the amphitheatre created by Sue Dadd and James Griffith. I will leave the description to them, here, If you have not seen it go and read it now! They have kindly said I can show one of the photos.

Photo by MB Maher (
What is not to like about this, it ticks every box I want in the new garden: different levels, seating subtly incorporated, various routes through the area, using available materials and lots of succulents.  There seems to be something about amphitheatres and succulents that go together.  I first saw it at Minac Theatre in Cornwall.

If you are every in the area it is a must to visit.  The question is how to incorporate these elements into our flat garden.  I am wondering about using raised beds to form terracing around the edges of the garden, leaving space in the middle. Maybe even digging out the centre to create further height difference. I can work different seating and paths into this, plus of course there is plenty of space for my plants.  It would also allow me to incorporate a bank into the garden making the most of the south facing aspect.  I could also re-use materials from the various walls / building as we do the other work. The ideas are starting to form, but fitting them together into the space in a way that really works is going to be the hard bit.

This is where the garden designers earn their money, to take an idea like this and turn it into something unique without just copying someone else. I have nothing but respect for them and other artists and creative people, if I had the money there is no doubt I would use them more. This time I will have to do it myself, I hope I will be able to come up with a design that works, but they would add those little extras that turn a garden into something special.

On the plus side I will make the most of the fact that I get to get out my surveying stuff again, draw lots of scale drawings and see if I would have been any good at the design side had I gone down that path.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Look what I've got.

Yes a greenhouse!

Having visited my friends house to see his new greenhouse last weekend, he commented that he was going to be taking down his old one and storing it for a year. So did I want it? Not being rude, but I wasn't too keen at first; I would have to find and clear someone for it, sort a base, and the greenhouse itself was bashed about, with several twisted struts.  It is also cobbled together, as he was given the frame and cut some polycarb sheeting to fit.

Then having thought about it, I decided it was too good to turn down.  I could find somewhere for it, and it would give me a chance to test the size and also start on some shelving for when I get my full sized one. 

So today I invited my nephew over to play with some power tools and he jumped at the chance.  Although I was given strict instructions by his parents to bring him back with all his fingers still attached. First we cleared part of the flower bed on the road side as this was the least likely to be used for any building stuff next year. In no time at all we had the base knocked up as a 2.4x3m deck.  I know stone or concrete is better, but I wanted something I could re-use and wood was the only thing I know for sure I can use (even if not as a deck).  This should be a good location in that it will get sun on everything above the fence all day, so will heat up quickly.  I doubt I would use the same spot for the final greenhouse as you can see we are quite overlooked from that side, so I will most likely want to plant some taller plants in that bed to give us some privacy, shading that side of the garden.  But for this year it will be fine.

The greenhouse went up in no time at all, it actually took longer to clean and dis-infect than it did to do everything else.  I was going to wait until it was complete and filled before posting pictures, but I couldn't wait.  Hopefully I will get time to finish it off tomorrow, I have washed most of the polycarb and just need to tape the ends and fit them.  So it looks like all my plants will be spoilt this year, but don't worry I am sure it will be back to the rough treatment again next year. I can't have them going soft on me.

Monday 22 October 2012

A new photo spot

It is probably particular to collectors who have most of their plants in pots, but when I'm photographing pots I tend to move them to the same spot for the photo, unless they are too big to move that is. At the last house this was either on the table in the garden, for a more "I'm an actual gardener" feel. I was more trying to convince myself than anyone else.

Or if the photo was for my records then I would get out a bit of black card and put the plant on that in the hope of getting a better photo.  I love the way that I actual believe placing a bit of card behind the plant is going to improve my photographic skills.

So new house, the card seems to have got lost in the move, and I am having to experiment with a new spot. The table has moved with us, but the background is messy. Having built my cold frame it seemed a simple place to use for a start (although I may have to paint the wall one colour instead of the two tone it currently is).

I quite like the effect you get form the polycarb sheeting when taken from above, you can just make out plants in the cold frame.

A better photographer than me could probably produce some very creative shots of plants through the polycarb. I really should invest in a proper camera and maybe even do a course to improve my photography skills.  I am always very jealous when I see the amazing photos on other blogs, one that stood out for me recently was Rhone Street Gardens, post on Wind Dancer gardens. Mind you I could just as easily have selected countless other blogs which regularly feature amazing photos.  In the mean time, maybe I should just be less lazy and dig out the light tent my OH made last year, it definitely helped when trying to photograph this echeveria cante flower.

I guess I will have to continue experimenting until I find somewhere I like.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Beautiful but deadly

Today I took some time off to go and visit a friends greenhouse. He has a range of plants, but his big thing are the dyckias and he has built up quite a collection.  This is the main bench

The plants are amazing


Out of all the spiky plants dyckias have some of the most lethal spines, I wouldn't like to have to pull out individual pots from that lot.  But when you look at individual plants they are beautiful.

There were one or two dyckias scattered around on the other benches as well. Every now and then there are agaves and aloes mixed in. 

It's good to see the aloes in full flower and with lots of new plants forming on the old flower spikes as well.  Anyone growing the new aloe miniatures that are so popular, remember do not cut off your flower stalks!

That is a greenhouse I could cope with and the plants aren't bad either.

Thursday 18 October 2012

The long term forcast is in

and it looks like we are in for another cold winter in the UK.  I am always interested in these and how true they turn out to be.  Apparently the proper cold (by UK standards that is which is about -8C for me) is due to start around mid November and last through until January.  Could also be a good year to bet on a white Christmas.  Looks like we are also in for a warm patch starting next week which will be great giving me a chance to actually do some non succulent garden clearing as I haven't started at all on the garden.

These Indian summers are becoming a bit of a fixture, although they are a mixed blessing as often it goes from warm to very cold within a day or two.  It is not great for the plants as they continue growing and suddenly get hit by the cold and are not dormant which does more damage. 

I finally feel I am on top of packing things up, I spent a happy hour this morning re-packing the cold frame, this time properly arranging the plants to allow two layers.  The bottom layer are the slow growing plants like the agaves.  These can cope with the lower light levels without getting leggy. Then on top of that goes a second layer of the faster growing plants, that even in winter tend to get leggy if it's too dark.  These are mainly the echeverias for me.  It is always a bit sad packing them up as it means cutting the last of the flowers off, in some cases, like e. blue prince, there are still flowers yet to open and it would carry on flower for at least another month given a chance. But drying them out is vital and I still have the indoors ones to admire.

I seem to have managed to clear this area of snails finally. Having been out there every evening to check and dispose of any and checking for trails it seems to have done the job for now.  The cold frame is away form the rest of the plants so hopefully I will get away without any end of year damage on that front.

I also set up a table for the spoilt plants that are inside.  This will be useful to allow me to arrange them into groups to make the most of the available spaces.  I find almost as bad as loosing a plant to the cold, is spoiling the look of one because the light was too low and it got leggy.  As with the cold frame, I therefore try to place plants according to light vs speed of growth.

I have already move a lot off the table, which was full when I unloaded the crates. Sadly it wont be allowed to stay there once the decorating starts, but there is a similar bay window in the room below (which we are currently working on) so I will have to ask permission to set it up there instead.  It is fun having so many plants inside, I don't have to go out all at the moment to be able to fuss over them and with quite a few of the aloes and echeveria still flowering they are bringing some colour to all the bare plaster walls. Mind you it has been noted that my decorating productivity has decreased significantly since they have been set out. I can't think why.

Monday 15 October 2012

First frosts!

It was a bit of a shock to wake up Sunday morning to find a hard frost all over the car.  I quickly checked on the plants expecting to find at least one pile of mush and was relived to find they were all fine, but it was a real wake up call to how unprepared I am.  I haven't even got around to drying most of the plants off let alone getting the remaining shelters up.

It was this that inspired the last post and the game of "Pamper or Freeze".  For anyone interested my answers would have been: Aloe plicatilis over speciosa.  While the flower of speciosa is amazing, the plant especially when small is not that special and plicatilis is so much more interesting to look at. Agave charazoi over agave bovicornuta. While I think that bovicornuta is probably the better looking plant, I couldn't ignore the fact that charazoi is fairly newly discovered and a bit of an oddity. It is also a more manageable size for a small garden. Aloe snowflake over aloe firebird.  This is an easy one I think, the snowflake is a much stronger colour (or lack of it) and stays as a really nice clump without getting too messy. Finally aloe lavender beauty or aloe spinosissima variegata.  It is rare to see plants that are lavender in colour all year although it is a bit of a whimp and I do actually prefer the spinosissima as a clump.

I was going to add a couple of bowls to the list, the first contains some of my cacti

While this second is a collection of three different forms of echeveria agavoides, the two small ones are red edge (or lipstick depending on if you believe there is any difference in the two forms), the purple one is called romeo and is a new introduction and the other is ebony which is probably the most sort after of all forms.

Having seen some of the comments (if you have not posted your selections please do), I am pleased I didn't. I am not sure poor Loree over at Danger Garden could have coped.  As it is I should say that all the plants featured will actually be found homes for inside so please do not worry. What is so interesting about that post and having to make the decisions in real life, is how hard people find it.  You would be amazed how few people could actually bring themselves to make a selection. I am probably a little extreme in that I haven't had the space for a green house so my collection has grown with the knowledge that many of my plants are going to get much less protection than they should get. This has meant that I have pushed the plants and found out what works for me, and also tried different methods.  The bowls for instance are now simply covered with plastic cloches, unless we have a very bad winter that should be fine for both these sets of plants. It is more keeping them dry that is important with the type of lows I am expecting.

Needing to get a bit more organised, I also set up a rain cover for a few more of the plants, this should allow them to start to dry out until I can get a more permanent cold frame up for them.

While the game was just fun, I do actually have to make a lot of choices in what gets protection.  I am pleased to say that in the majority of cases this is done based on information on hardiness, not on looks.  The first thing I do is to move all the plants that will cope with my minimums out of the way so that they do not add to the confusion. Plants that I feel may be able to cope get placed at the side of this collection. I know when people come to visit they are surprised by how many agaves I have in this set, I place all my a. victoriae reginae, a. utahensis collection in this group and kept dry they all do fine.

Next I select all the plants that need to be brought inside, I start with those that are really special and I do not want to risk and then work down using hardiness information, so plants like agave attenuata get brought in as they turn to mush at about -3. If there is space I then add other plants based on my favourites, or smaller plants I want to give a bit of a start.  If I have duplicates then the best plant will be brought in the rest given less protection.  These plants get placed on windowsills and in the shelf unit with lights (here it is with a few plants in until I re-arrange the plants better to best use the space).

Next is the cold frame this is really where the tough choices have to start.  I know some of the plants going in here should really get more protection, and there is not enough space for all the plants, so this is where the real fun starts.  Again decisions are based on hardiness and which plants will be hardest to replace or I am most attached to.  Once full everything else gets put under rain covers or in those cheap green houses which just keep them dry and maybe help keep worst of the frost out. 

I am always amazed each spring when looking through how few plants I loose.  I have lost one or two plants I care about, but the alternatives would have been worse. There have also been times when I have got confused and moving two pots placed them the wrong way around, giving one more and the other less protection than they need.  Most of the time however the damage and looses tend to be to spares or tests I am running to see if I can provide less protection.  I really couldn't have my collection without taking some risks and for me this has been invaluable to show what plants can really cope with, not what some of the reports say they will cope with. Of course there are always changes of heart and I will rush out before a cold spell to move something last minute.

Knowing how I work, it really is interesting to see what selections other people would make if they had to, why not try a "Pamper or Freeze" post with your own plants and see what reactions you get, (even if you do not need to worry about frosts in your garden!) If you do, please let me know by commenting here so I know to look in and make my selection. And Loree, I promise that sadistic sunday will not be a regular feature so you can continue to look in.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Sadistic sunday

Welcome to the new Spiky Obsession game show "Pamper or Freeze". The rules are very simple you will be shown two plants that take up roughly the same amount of space. One will be brought in and pampered over winter. The other left to struggle in the cold. But which is which, the decision is yours. 

So lets bring out our first contestants, both from South Africa where it is a little warmer than the UK.

Contestant no. 1 is aloe speciosa, also known as the tilt head aloe.  A lovely aloe with perhaps the best flower of all.  This particular plant was grown from seed 3 years ago and is the last remaining from the batch.

Contestant no. 2 is aloe plicatilis, one of the tree aloes. This the the more common tree aloe you will find in collections as it is slightly smaller.  What it lacks in the simple flower it makes up for in that shape.  This plant was grown from a simple cutting a few years ago and flowered for the first time last year.

So there you have them, both spectacular plants worth a place in any collection.  Sadly only one can secure that precious place inside this winter, but which will it be?  The decision is yours.

Without further ado lets bring out our next contestants this time from South America, so please welcome agave chazzaroi and agave bovicornuta

Agave chazaroi is one more recently brought into cultivation, it is one of the varieties with no marginal teeth, instead having a sharp knife like edge.  It is not totally defenceless though with a solid terminal spine.  This plant has been in my collection for two years and has grown constantly during that time.

Agave bovicornuta also known as the cow horn agave on the other hand is known for it marginal teeth.  The young plant is just starting to show the distinctive red and should only get better every year. Another solid grower despite the colder summer.

So I guess the question is do you like your agaves with or without teeth.  Again only one can make it through, the other will have to take its chances out in the cold.  The choice is yours.

Remember you have to vote to ensure your favourite gets the pampering they all deserve.

Now time for the designer plants, the so called lookers of the succulent world and it is back to the aloes with aloe firebird (which i suspect is actually aloe lizard lips) and aloe snowflake.

Aloe firebird, perhaps the only wrongly named plant in the show this week.  To me it looks like aloe lizard lips. Whatever its name  it is a pretty little clumping variety, with strong green and white leaves.  It seems to flower freely even though it is young and I have only had it just over a year.

Aloe snowflake, one of the palest of the small aloes more white that green. Unusually for a pale plant it is a strong grower, clumping quickly and then going on to flower reliably every year. Again this was a single plant which I got it a couple of years back

There they are the models of the aloe world.  Who can deny that they are beautiful plants, but do you prefer green with white specks or white with green specks?

Time our last contestants of the week are less well known aloes, but no less special. Sticking with the miniatures it is aloe lavender beauty and aloe spinosissima variegata

Aloe lavender beauty is not the showiest of the miniatures, it doesn't have the lumps and bumps of some of the new varieties instead going for a simple charm.  It is selected for its colour, a clear lavender, something rarely seen in the aloes. 

Aloe spinosissima variegata doesn't have the most defined variegation, again opting for subtle.  A bit like a compact arborescens which clumps.  Like so many of the miniatures it clumps quickly and has been a good performer.

So there you have them our last contestants in this weeks show.  The choice is subtle colour or subtle variegation.

Right the lines are now open, lets recap over your choices:

Aloe speciosa or aloe plicatilis
Agave charazoi or agave bovicornuta
Aloe firebird (lizard lips) or aloe snowflake
Aloe lavender beauty or aloe spinosissima variegata

Remember you are selecting one plant from each pair purely based on which one you like best. So which ones would save? 

Now the legal bit: no plants were hurt in the making of this reality show.

Friday 12 October 2012

Starting to worry just a little bit.

I finally collected my prized plants from my parents, who have kindly been looking after them while we moved.  These are the ones that need pampering, either due to not being at all cold hardy, or because they are too rare to risk.  Needless to say I am very excited to have them back again. This was slightly curtailed when I had all the crates inside and realised I have no where to actually put them.

Thankfully the room that will be our bedroom is empty until we get around to decorating it, so the crates can be put in there while I think.  That window would be an ideal starting place, but it doesn't have a sill.  Who builds a large bay window without a windowsill?  Not a plant lover I can tell you. If I thought we wouldn't get around to decorating until spring, I would be tempted to get a large board and just rest it across to form a temporary windowsill. Sadly this room is next on the decorating list and having done one room, I know how dusty / messy decorating is and that wouldn't be good for the plants.  Mind you it would be good incentive to get the room done quickly so I could use it. My OH has missed a trick not thinking of that one.

Anyway the plants are all healthy which is the main thing.  Thy could do with a little water, but that will give me a chance to treat them against vine weevil so I don't mind that.

Having not seem them for a few weeks it is amazing how much they have grown. It was also good to find spares for the echeveria hybrid that was munched by the snails. 

Plants everywhere, all the windowsills full and a large number still waiting to be found homes for.  It looks like things are finally getting back to normal after the move.  I wonder if my OH is regretting allowing more plants into the house this winter? On second thoughts I'm not sure I want to know the answer to that one.

Thursday 11 October 2012

One agave bracteosa that is not staying outside

For me this is one of the the most under-rated agaves, not just for the UK given how cold hardy it is, but in general for its squid like looks.  I have several of different sizes and they have all lived outside pretty much since I got them.  They don't get any protection and sail through without problems or damage. One good thing about them is that it gains its winter hardiness from a very small size, unlike many agaves. This is the largest before it was dug up for the move, during which I found it was starting to pup so should be a nice clump.

This makes them very easy at this time of year; they do take part in the fight for space in the cold frames.  Until this year that is, when I am the proud owner of the variegated from a. bracteosa 'Monterrey Frost". This is a plant that has taken me years to find (at a reasonable price) and having finally got one I am not risking it outside even in one of the cold frames.

It is plants like this that best highlight the difference between the USA and the UK, the blog Danger Garden showed a nursery with rows of these all lined up, while the Piece of Eden has one planted out on one of their banks (assuming the puppies haven't eaten it).  These new variegates and hybrids make it into general cultivation so much quicker, and while it is hopefully still considered a special plant, it wont break the bank to purchase and so can be used more freely in the garden.  In the UK though it is a different matter, you pretty much solely find this one on ebay and they can go for stupid money.  I had to apply my golden rule, which is to decide the price the plant is actually worth and not be tempted to bid higher.  You will always get it in the end, even if you have to wait a year.

So for the time being, this is one agave bracteosa that will be firmly mollycoddled inside out of reach of frosts (and slugs). That is until like the USA, I can pop down to the local garden centre and pick up a couple of spares. 

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Starting young

Over the last couple of years my niece has developed an interest in gardening and has grown fruit and veg in their garden over the summer.  Her family all helped us move the plants during which she had great fun going through all the different pots deciding which varieties she liked the best. For her 10th birthday I promised we could go cacti shopping so she could start her own little collection.

For once I was actually very responsible; normally I take great pride in being an uncle and buying the presents that her parents would most dis-approve of.  After all isn't the whole point of uncles. But when it comes to plants I couldn't bring myself to let her buy things that would only die.  So the plants were limited to those that would survive indoors overwinter on her windowsill. Aloes and echeverias and the like were out as they tend to get leggy and need careful control of watering, while many cacti being so slow growing cope without problems with less than perfect care.

So last weekend we visited a local garden centre and selected a few small plants for a little bowl planter and one for an individual pot.  We also selected some gravel dressing, no let me correct that, she selected some gravel for top dressing (the reason is obvious from the photos). Here is the little bowl:

And the pot with a little now compulsory pink grafted cacti

It was interesting to see how she selected the cacti, wanting different shapes and textures.  Who knows she may become spiky obsessed as well. Although we are going to have to work on her colour selection for gravel.

Sunday 7 October 2012

At last a day in the garden

Being such a sunny day, we decided to treat ourselves and have a day off from decorating.  It was great to spend a proper amount of time in the garden and I of course used it clean up some of the pots.  At this time of year I am checking for damage, treating against vine weevil (a must if you have echeverias) and this year removing weeds and snails. Then it was on to the winter protection.

I mentioned this time last year the different levels of protection plants get; from being brought in, down to having a bit of fleece thrown over them before it snows.  As mentioned in the last post, I have lost my shed and this was a major part of my winter storage, so the cold frames are having to be far better planned. The first one is up and in the best place in the garden.  It gets sun from sunrise until about 4pm and is against the house so will benefit a bit form that.

Normally I don't have much problem filling it, it is just a case of taking the plants that wont fit inside or in the shed and putting them in here until there is no more space.  This year though I'm having to make some really tough decisions, while there will be another cold frame, it will not be as warm plus there are more plants that are used to better protection.  So I have done a test run using plants I am most concerned about or that are my favourites. These can at least start to dry out, but there are bound to be a few swaps.

I am also wondering if I could fit a second level in as well using the shelves form one of those mini green houses you find in garden centres. There are a lot of plants still waiting for a winter home and leaving them unprotected is not an option for most of them. Thankfully most of the larger plants are hardy and while a rain cover will help if I don't have space then it is fine and they can get a simple fleece cover before any snow. This collection is just half of those still sitting around!

There are a couple in there, like the agave attenuata, that have to be brought inside and I have started to put together those that will be brought in. 

Most of the very delicate ones are still at my parents and will have to be brought over in the next few weeks, they want their shed back for their own plants.  At the moment I am just crossing my fingers that everything is going to fit.  It's not just a case of putting them anywhere, if the light it not strong enough it can totally spoil the look of the plant, even when they are almost dormant. Still a long way to go, but at least there is some progress.

Hopefully this will be the last year I have to go through this and next year I will have an actual greenhouse!

Thursday 4 October 2012

Who would have guessed I would miss my shed!

What with all the stripping of wall paper, woodwork, sanding and painting I have hardly had any time in the garden.  When I do get out, it tends to be just a quick look to check everything is OK and to dispose of any snails.  I am finding it very hard not to plan the garden and just want to get out there and get started. As we are having the garage demolished (the roof is asbestos, a strangely British thing), plus building an extension so we have a larger kitchen and my OH gets the sewing studio she has been dreaming about. All this means I can not plan anything until the architects have done their bits.

Instead I am focusing on the things that I can do and rapidly need to be done.  Firstly some winter storage for the plants.  I was thinking about building a greenhouse-sized cold frame out of polycarb sheeting.  That was until I priced it and found out I could buy a green house for roughly the same amount.  So while it would be great for the short time, there are probably better things I can spend my money on at the moment, (my OH seems to think carpets and furniture should be higher up the priorities).  So instead it looks like I will be adding a second cold frame to the one I usually build. I know these work for most of my plants, as it is much keeping them dry as protection from the cold.  Here is the one from this time last year, filling up ready for the front and top to go on.

There will be a few more plants brought in this winter, on special permission (I have filled out the required forms in triplicate and got them signed), so my precious plants should all be OK. It does mean I won't have anywhere outside to potter and made me reminisce about my old shed.  It wasn't big or grand, but it turned out to be very functional for storing plants both in the summer and winter. 

Many happy hours were spent pottering in there, examining every detail of whatever plants were on the shelves at the time. No matter how cold or rainy I could pop out without getting wet and the rain on the roof was very calming. For much of the year it was full of little flower spikes, often creeping up to the shelf above. 

Once the new garden is started and the workshop and green house are all in place, I will have all the space for endless pottering.  But no doubt as I walk down the garden in the rain to get to them, some part of me will remember back to my first little shed and how dry it kept me.