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August 2011

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Spectres at the feast, Chilean myrtle, ‘Percy’s Pride’ and Lobelia tupa

What a peculiar year it has been. Even in the second half of 2011 gardeners are still recounting what plants they lost last winter and it seems that an awful lot of southern hemisphere plants have perished. One man I know of has cancelled the visits of all garden groups to his garden and thinks it will take five years for it to recover. 

Rose North


What makes the year peculiar is that many plants that did survive the vicious winter have performed better than ever. In our garden magnolias, rhododendrons and other spring and early summer flowering shrubs surpassed themselves. So too have roses and perennials like astrantias daylilies, aconitums and the whole iris clan and, strangely enough, they were in flower earlier than in previous years. The white rugosa rose hybrid ‘Blanc Double de Coubert' was in full bloom at the beginning of May and the climber ‘Madame Alfred Carriere' bore its first rose on May 1st. I've never known that to happen before this far north.


All this would have been wonderful if there hadn't been so many dead or dying plants round the garden like spectres at the feast. But removing the sickly plants too early is not a wise thing to do. The experts caution us to wait until June, at the earliest, before pronouncing a plant dead. Good advice. Some rhododendrons appeared to be dead with purplish brown leaves and wizened brown flower buds but, at the end of May, new little leaves were appearing on the stems.


However there were some plants that I had to remove in early spring. These were ones that had been so badly hit by frost of the previous winter that they were half dead. Last winter, when the temperature dropped to -18° Celsius, just finished them off. The Chilean myrtle, Luma apiculata, was nearly four metres tall and I miss its cinnamon brown bark, its neat little glossy evergreen leaves, its lovely white, scented flowers that were so attractive to bees, and the shiny black berries that followed. It has been replaced by an ornamental crab Malus ‘Evereste'. It's tough but lacks the panache of the myrtle. Another sad loss was Corokia buddleioides, a New Zealand evergreen with grey-green leaves that was studded in tiny yellow star flowers in late spring; these became dark red berries later. I replaced it with a Forsythia x intermedia ‘Lynwood', which is not the most exciting shrub in the world, especially when it's out of flower, but it's very hardy and, like the flowering crab, it is resolutely cheerful in spring.


At this time of year I miss the kniphofias dreadfully because I had been growing an increasing number of them over the years. As well as different kinds of red hot pokers, I had yellow ones like ‘Percy's Pride' and ‘Wrexham Buttercup'. All were killed and that left a depressingly large bare space in one border. Last May I copied a planting scheme that I saw in a magazine. It showed vivid orange deciduous azaleas surrounded by a mass of ordinary old Alchemilla mollis. It looked great then but would be lacklustre now if it weren't for the tall apricot-orange shrub rose ‘Westerland', crocosmias and daylilies. A year ago, I boasted about how well Chilean native Lobelia tupa was doing. It too has completely disappeared off the face of the earth. Truly, pride does come before a fall!

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