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September 2009

Ireland: Collecting Seaweed with Joy Larkcom

Gathering seaweed in Cork with Joy Larkcom and Don Pollard

We’re spending a few days with Joy Larkcom, the long reigning Queen of organic gardening. (She’ll hate me for writing that!). Here in west Cork, in Ireland, she and her husband Don have created their second organic food garden (the previous one was back in England, in Norfolk) and one of the reasons for the generous crops of delicious produce – is seaweed. So yesterday we went to collect some.

It's washed up on a little sandy beach not far away, sometimes in great mounds up to (6ft/1.8m) high, so we headed off with a trailer hitched behind the car to collect it. Joy reckons there’s at least twenty different species of seaweed washed up on the beach and they all go into the plastic sacks for loading into the trailer.

“It seems to be really nutritious for plants as it absorbs so many minor elements from the sea water,” Joy explained. “It’s brilliant for mulching but you need to have it very thick, about 6in/15cm; the colours are glorious when you first spread it.”

Higher up the beach we also found a few plants of wild sea kale, Crambe maritima, a classic but uncommon plant of these shores which grows in sand and shingle just above the high tide line. They were looking a bit ragged at this late stage of the season but were also being invaded by wild brambles (blackberries) so we spent a few minutes carefully loosening the soil and removing the brambles without disturbing the sea kale.

Don Pollard spreading seaweed mulch on cordon gooseberries

Out in the garden the seaweed goes on the fruit bushes and flower borders (not just veggies, plenty of flowers here too) and even on the greenhouse borders. “It has a lovely sea smell,” says Joy, “and after we’ve spread it in the greenhouse I really like to take a nap in there and smell the ocean!”

Of course seaweed comes mixed with a little sand, no bad thing on heavy soil. In some parts of the west of Ireland, over the decades, soil has been created almost entirely from seaweed, potato tops and animal manure. Just imagine what wonderful crops that grows!

Don't for get to check out Joy's many superb books published in North America and published in Britain.

Roses at Rockingham Castle

David Austin's standard roses at Rockingham Castle

We’re just back from a visit the thousand-year-old Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire. Perched high above the landscape for the best view of attacking armies over the many centuries when defending the fortress was crucial, it’s now a unique private home which is also open to visitors.

This being a more or less horticultural blog it’s a feature of the garden, recently re-designed by Chelsea Gold Medal winner Robert Myers with planting by local designer Tim Rassell, which I want to tell you about: a collection of David Austin’s wonderful English Roses – grown as standards.

I’ve rarely seen them grown in this way and here there were thirty seven standards on either side of a gravel path. Many looked superb, a few were less impressive but, in general, it’s very successful for growing them as standards has one great advantage.

As was clear from the appreciation of the bus load of seniors on a day out, the lovely cupped or quartered shapes of the flowers as well as the heady fragrance of many varieties, could be appreciated without having to bend down – for all the flowers are carried at around head height. All of us, not just  those less inclined to stoop to sniff, can appreciate the colour, form and fragrance so much more easily.

Standard 'Sophy's Rose' at Rockingham Castle

The pick of the varieties for growing in this way seemed to be ‘Sophy’s Rose’ (left), with light red rosette flowers and a tea fragrance, the strongly scented golden ‘Graham Thomas’ and ‘Winchester Cathedral’, a white version of the superb ‘Mary Rose’.

On the other hand ‘Golden Celebration’ was too floppy to be a success as a standard, ‘Heritage’, sometimes also grown as a climbing rose, was too open in habit while ‘Brother Cadfael’ produced too many long shoots.

But the over all it’s a great idea. And while at Rockingham Castle they had them along both sides of a gravel path, they could just as easily be grown in a mixed border or even in a large tub.

Chopping down elders

A mature elder, Sambucus nigra. Image: GNU Free Documentation License

In the pub this evening, my friend Gordon (who specialises in creating hand crafted chairs from local wood) was asking what we’d been doing today – you know, the way you do. I explained that we’d been cutting down a couple of elder trees which had seeded in the garden and quickly grown to an uncomfortably large size. “I suppose you’ll be writing about it in your blog,” he said. Well, it certainly looks like it.

“Isn’t Judas supposed to have hung himself on an elder tree?” somebody asked. “Are they tall enough?” asked somebody else. “Do they even grow in that part of the world?” I wondered.

Well, the common elder, Sambucus nigra, does indeed grow in Israel and I suspect that in that climate it grows more slowly and develops denser and tougher wood than it does here in Britain. The chain saw just slices through branches even 15cm/6in across because the wood is so soft. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t think the 20ft/6m elder that I've just chopped down in our garden would not support the weight of man.

As it happens, only this morning I was looking at a rather different elder down at Foxtail Lilly, my friend Tracey Mathieson’s garden. I’ve been looking into the plants which do well in dry shade and underneath a tall conifer – and doing very well in this classic dry shade location - she has a variegated elder.

Variegated elder, Sambucus nigra 'Albovariegata'.

It looks to me like ‘Albovariegata’. This is a form with slightly irregular but clean white edges to the leaves and although less than half of each leaf is white it really brings light to a very dark and shady place. ‘Madonna’, the variegated elder that’s more often seen, is creamier in colour and also seems less vigorous.

It’s interesting to note that the elders that grow back in Pennsylvania, Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis, never seem to get more than 5-6ft/1.5-1.8m high at the very most.

By the way: The King’s Arms at Polebrook in Northamptonshire is hosting a beer festival this weekend featuring an blend of local English ales (Golden Drop from Ufford Ales was simply glorious tonight) with al fresco cooking by the deft hand and wok of landlord Justin Capp. Tonight the traditional English ales were accompanied by a noodle bar with delicious Thai curries and tomorrow he’s serving paella! English beer, noodles, paella…? Take my word for it, it’s a perfect match.

Soap deterring deer?

White-tailed deer feeding on tree branchesI was lecturing here in England last night, to the Norfolk Group of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens and the chair of the meeting Jaime Blake, who looks after The Dell Garden created by Alan Bloom at Bressingham, asked me about deer. They’re becoming a serious problem in Britain as they are across the water.

The gardens are Bressingham suffer from having nature preserves on either side, ideal refuges for the deer which emerge from their sanctuaries to sample the rich variety of perennials in The Dell Garden. Jaime was wondering about using bars of scented soap near plants which are damaged to deter the deer.

 Emaciated white-tailed deer in winter. Image: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0I’ve noticed that soap works when there are plenty of things for the deer to eat, they can just as easily choose plants away from where the soap is hanging. But in winter, when the deer are becoming emaciated (left) and having a tough time finding food, the urge to eat overcomes revulsion at the soap’s scent.

Personally, I think there are only two ways to keep the deer off your plants. Erect a tall stout fence to keep them out, or only plant varieties that the deer in your area don’t eat. Jaime – I hope you’re keeping a list of plants the Bressingham deer never ever touch.

New plant on the creek

As I stroll to the mail box every day to pick up the mail, I cross the tiny trickle of a creek which runs through the side of our property down to the lake. It roars, on a modest scale, in spring when the snow melts and never quite dries out in summer. In some parts it’s too wide to jump over, but only a few inches deep; in some spots you can stand with a foot on each side of a 2ft deep hole.

Chelone glabra, white turtlehead, new on our creek. Image: © As I cross, I always glance both ways to see what’s going on and in summer to see if the deer have eaten the cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, which grows with its feet in the water in some places. This year, I’m afraid, they mostly have.

The lavender flowered perennial Mimulus ringens, a small piece of which I moved from a huge colony alongside another stream a few miles away, flowered for the first time this year then just a couple of days ago I was delighted to see a plant in flower that I’d never seen alongside our stream before.

Three plants of white turtlehead, Chelone glabra (above, click to enlarge), have turned up and, while the one in the shadiest spot was still in bud, two had opened their first flowers. And a turtlehead is exactly what each flower looks like, as you can see from the picture.

Two of the three plants are right on the edge of the little stream, the other in a boggy patch close by. I can only assume that the seeds were washed down from upstream somewhere but it’s strange that all three plants are within 20ft of each other and there are no more to be seen anywhere.

White turtlehead is not a rare plant, it grows all over eastern north America from as far south as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to Newfoundland in the north. But it’s a treat to have it on our little creek – I bent a few dead blueberry branches over the plants just to deter the deer. After all, these three turtleheads have only just arrived - it would be a shame for the deer to eat them even before they’ve set some seeds.

No sense in no scent

Malmaison carnation 'Marmion'. Image: ©AllwoodsI was at a funeral on Saturday and at the cemetery each of the mourners was handed a carnation to place on the coffin. The first thing almost everyone did was to the raise the flower and smell it. And the next reaction was almost always the slightest hint of disappointment. Perhaps it was more the absence of satisfaction at finding fragrance that I noticed, a kind of resignation.

One of the war cries of traditionally minded gardeners is that modern varieties have no scent. The truth is that some modern varieties of roses, sweet peas, carnations etc have no scent and some old and traditional varieties of the same plants are unscented.

One reason that modern varieties of roses and carnations developed as cut flower are often unscented, in spite of general opinion that scented flowers would bring higher market prices, is that there is thought to be a link between fragrance and short vase life.

Malmaison carnation 'Thora'. Image: ©Allwoods Imogen Stone, the florist delivery service, reporting the Flowers and Plants Association, says: “The scent genes are very strongly bound up with those for vase life and flower size - stronger scent often means shorter life or smaller flowers.” However A.M. Borda, T.A. Nell and D.G. Clark in their paper: The relationship between floral fragrance and vase life of cut flower roses report: “…fragrance can not be directly related with short vase life of cut rose cultivars. As an alternative, postharvest factors such as ethylene synthesis or sensitivity, may be more important for influencing the postharvest performance of fragrant cut rose cultivars.”

The Imogen Stone article reports these cut flower carnations as having a strong scent: ‘Bagatel’, ‘Gipsy’ and ‘Candy White’. But the carnations with the most powerful fragrance of all the old Malmaison carnations, from as long ago as 1857, rescued from obscurity by Jim Marshall, former Gardens Advisor to the National Trust in Britain and now the holder of the British National Collection of Malmaison Carnations.

Malmaison carnation 'Princess of Wales'. Image: ©Allwoods Unlike the familiar cut flower carnations, Malmaisons (four shown here) have a shorter season, the flower form is a little disorganised, but the colours are impressive and the scent can be staggering. And they’re being planted commercially again.

In Britain a good range of Malmaison carnations is available by mail order from from Allwoods. Anyone know an American mail order supplier?

And note for the far flung future: when my time comes, a few Malmaison carnations would be just thing thing.

Our black squirrel

BlackSquirrel15988 Well, it was only a couple of weeks ago we had a black bear strolling along our deckrail, today it was our black squirrel.

He/she’s been around more this year than usual and I’ve also seen one (just once) that was in between normal gray squirrel in color and this black one. In cold areas black squirrels have an advantage because their dark coat absorbs more heat than a gray coat so they need to eat less to keep warm. Our old friend Wikipedia tells us that black individuals turn up in most populations of gray squirrels and are more common than the gray form in some areas.

Wikipedia also reveals: “The black subgroup seems to have been dominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, since their dark color helped them hide in virgin forests which tended to be very dense and shaded.”

So originally, most gray squirrels were actually black!