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July 2013

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Notebook North Rae McIntyre

Gardening curtailed, layered planting, a fire-pit and heathers

During the past few months my gardening has been severely curtailed because of a knee replacement operation. It has meant that I have more time to read those books that were set aside when I was physically active. One book I was given is The Layered Garden by David L. Culp, an American, living in Pennsylvania. The subtitle is Design Lessons for year-round beauty from Brandywine Cottage. It is a beautiful book with stunning photographs to drool over and tells how to achieve a succession of eye-catching plant combinations nearly all year round by planting in layers. The book has been received with much acclaim as if this was an entirely innovative idea but, at heart, I am an old cynic and believe that many people have been gardening like this for years. I am not saying my own garden is anything special but I have been planting in layers since I first started gardening. It was something I learned how to do from all the experienced gardeners I knew.


One border starts off in January with a bottom layer of snowdrops, winter-flowering daffodils and hellebores. Winter-flowering shrubs like Hamamelis mollis 'Pallida' and Azara microphylla give height. These are followed by the fresh lime-green leaves of hemerocallis that hide the dying daffodil foliage with shrubs like the scarlet-flowered Chaenomeles speciosa for colour at a higher level. Tulips, such as the orange 'Ballerina', come afterwards to harmonise with red-orange bracts of Euphorbia griffithii and to brighten the dark purplish-brown foliage of Cotinus 'Royal Purple' and Physocarpus 'Diabolo'.

In summer the hemerocallis flower in jazzy colours of orange, yellow and apricot followed by the equally vivid colours of crocosmia flowers and the vermilion blooms of Watsonia beatricis.. The climax of the year is the striking autumnal colouring of the hamamelis, cotinus and physocarpus. Except during very hard winters, the buds of Narcissus 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation' are piercing through the ground in December, thus starting the cycle all over again.


There is one idea that I would like to copy from David Culp and that is his fire-pit. I've thought of having one for a long time, a nice little hellhole in which to burn really bad weeds and the woody stems of brambles and shrub prunings. Andy, who works here, is going to make one, that is, when he has time. It should be pleasant to sit beside on cool summer evenings and the alkaline ash left behind should provide food for non-ericaceous plants.


Now for something quite different. In one newspaper a gardening journalist was bemoaning the fact that very few people grow heathers nowadays. Many cultivars are dying out because people no longer want them and bees are supposedly suffering because of the shortage of nectar. The writer felt that garden-centre owners are duty-bound to promote sales of heathers so that they become popular again. This I believe is far beyond the remit of garden centre owners who are finding times hard enough in the present recession and extended dismal weather conditions without having to revive something passé. The phrase 'flogging a dead horse' comes to mind. Heathers had their day during the 1970s and 1980s and other fashions have since taken their place. It's sad about the bees being deprived of heather nectar but what did they do before acres of heathers became fashionable? And what about all those hectares of moorland where heathers grow naturally and provide a rich natural source of nectar for bees?



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