Archive for the ‘Plant Talk with Graham Rice’ Category

Colourful sweet potatoes

January 11th, 2019 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Ipomoea 'Sweet Caroline Purple' and 'Sweet Caroline Green'

There are two kinds of Ipomoea. There’s the familiar ‘Heavenly Blue’, one of the loveliest of all climbers – of all flowering plants, in fact – but there’s also another type: the sweet potato.

Sweet potatoes have always been on the margins here in Britain, they need hotter summers than we’ve had here until recently but we can now grow them and they can crop well. But we can also grow ornamental sweet potatoes, varieties with a dramatically coloured foliage. Two of these are available this year.

These are not vigorous climbers, these are bushy semi-trailing or ground cover varieties that are superb in large hanging baskets, in large tubs or tumbling over the edges of raised beds. And it’s not for their flowers that we grow them but for their coloured foliage.

There are two varieties: ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ and ‘Sweet Caroline Green’. The foliage of ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ is, indeed, rich bronze-purple and it looks good in a large basket with red ivy-leaved geraniums or petunias. The leaves of ‘Sweet Caroline Green’ are more of a lime or chartreuse shade than simply green and are superb with petunias in fierier shades. Both also look good planted together or with coleus.

Both make dense growth, very effective ground cover in sunny sites – and they do like sun, whether grown in beds or containers. They like regular watering too and, when happy, ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ may well produce a few pink-eyed white flowers though they’re usually hidden by the leaves.

Whether sweet potatoes as summer foliage plants is a new idea to you or not – they’re well worth a try.

New Year’s day flowers

January 4th, 2019 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Calendula and Cerinthe

Nights below freezing this week have, perhaps, finally announced the arrival of winter but the end-of-the-year mildness led to a longer than usual list of plants in flower on New Year’s Day.

Shrubs including mahonias and viburnums and winter jasmine we expect, hellebores too and the early snowdrops, but garden pinks? They were a surprise and two of mine yielded flowers to cut for a little jug on the kitchen table (sorry, my picture was terrible!). Two different Shasta daisies, too, have been flowering for weeks and although wet weather has spoiled the open flowers, picked as the buds open they develop well indoors.

Self sown hardy annuals can usually be relied on and this year is no exception. Germinating at different times through the late summer and autumn, there always seems to be a plant in flower and calendulas and blue cornflowers plus cerinthes have all carried at least a few flowers for many weeks.

The other dependables are polyanthus, often developing flowers months ahead of their traditional season.

Surprisingly, a perennial salvia that was cut down hard after its summer flowers had faded promptly burst into growth and has been flowering for weeks. The buds of Japanese honeysuckle opened indoors and the mice and birds have left alone the bright berries of the misleadingly named stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) to add sparkle.

None of these plants are growing in especially cosy situations, they’re growing on my trial garden which is similar to regular back gardens around the country although it has good fences to keep the wind off. True, they don’t look as pristine or have long stems as they do in summer – but who cares!

Of course, it’s been mild but leaving in place self sown seedlings of annuals at various stages of development is a big help. Good drainage and a dark mulch helps keep the soil warm, cutting away dead and dying shoots of annuals opens them up and avoids winter rots and clearing away what really is past it allows good air movement and, again, reduces rots.

…and the Ivy

December 28th, 2018 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Hedera helix 'Goldchild'

“The Ivy… is to me a lively representation of the work and power of faith,” writes Charlotte Elizabeth in her intriguing and eccentric Chapters on Flowers of 1842. “Its strength consists in the tenacity with which it clings to something foreign to its own substance; identifying itself, by a wonderful process, with what it adheres to. Alone, it cannot stand: if you tear it from its prop, down must fall every branch, at the mercy of any trampling foot of man or beast….”

“Many years ago I planted an Ivy, and watched its growth with childish interest. Having fixed its root firmly in the soil, it speedily put forth shoots; and as these grew, the short, stout fibres appeared, grasping the rough particles of an ancient wall, plunging into every little crevice, and securing themselves by a process that excited my wonder beyond any thing that I can remember, at that period of my (young) life.

“I have pulled away the young branches, endeavouring to refix them in a different position but in vain: the work of adhesion was one that human skill could not accomplish, nor human power compel. The utmost that I could do was to afford an artificial support to the detached branch, until, having continued its growth, it put out new fingers, as I called them, to take a stronger hold on its bulwark.”

Of course, she would not be aware that our contemporary walls are built with such very hard mortar that the “fingers’ cannot get a good grip and the weight of heavy rain or snow will loose them from their hold. I have never seen this happen with ivy growing in its natural habitat, on the bark of a mature tree, where the combination of the crevices and the texture of the bark which makes them up, provides an extraordinary grip. Choose a variegated variety, such as ‘Goldchild’, above, and you have captivating colour also.

The holly…

December 21st, 2018 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Ilex aquifolium 'J. C. van Tol'

“How cheerless an aspect our gardens wear, in this dreary month of December,” Charlotte Elizabeth remarks in her delightful and slightly eccentric, Chapters on Flowers of 1842, “ had not some plants been endured with hardihood to retain their leaves, when the greater proportion have been stripped bare by chilling frosts and blighting winds.”

Charlotte Elizabeth was described in 1901 as “a woman of strong mind, powerful feeling, and of no inconsiderable share of tact.” She was also an early enthusiast for women’s rights. In Chapters on Flowers she has a tendency to divert her attention from the plants to religious matters but nevertheless continues wisely on the subject of evergreens.

“It is a point of wisdom, plentifully to intersperse our evergreens among the brighter, but more transitory children of summer; and now that the dead leaves are finally swept off, and my garden looks once more perfectly tidy, I can appreciate the taste that, in first laying it out–long before I had ever seen it–allotted no small space to plants that would defy the season’s severity.”

In today’s magazines, that fine sentiment would be expressed more crudely: “Grow evergreens for winter colour” .

She then continues, via a sly dig at lawns, with crisp reports of her own evergreens before “last, not least, the Holly-Bush abounds, valuable as a fence, beautiful in the lustre of its highly-polished leaves, sprinkled with berries of vivid red; and endeared by the sweetest, the purest, the most scared associations that can interest the mind, and elevate the soul.”

She then launches into, well, a bit of a rant against religious bigots who attack the use of holly as a seasonal decoration. “I wish, with all my heart, that the grandsires and granddames of this generation would do something to stem that sweeping tide of religious folly, yclept the march of intellect-the progress of refinement. It is now (thought) intolerably vulgar, insupportedly childish, and popishly superstitious to deck our houses at Christmas-tide with the shining holly… I have fought many battles with my pious friends, in defence of my pertinacious adherence to this good old custom. Sorry should I be, to leave the holly uncropped, or the house unadorned with its bright honours, on that most blessed anniversary….”

And just to remind you: ‘J. C. van Tol’ (above) produces red berries without the need of a different variety as pollinator and also has no spines.

Changing opinions on a winter wonder

December 14th, 2018 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

White-stemmed raspberry has lovely winter stems plus tasty berries

With gardening a rather soggy business recently, interest continues in The Floricultural Cabinet and Florists’ Magazine for December 1852, “conducted by” Joseph Harrison.

Each month, the good Mr Harrison includes Notes On New Or Rare Plants, details of which he unashamedly, and with appropriate credits, borrows from other titles. It’s a little like Amateur Gardening magazine quoting from a piece on new plants in Gardeners’ World magazine.

One of those discussed in December 1852, Rubus biflorus, catches my attention and so I’m continuing in the tradition of Mr Harrison by quoting details from his magazine here:

“This very handsome Bramble has been obtained from Nepaul by Mssrs. Veitch. It is quite hardy and very ornamental. The stems spring from the ground on clusters, like our common Raspberry, and attains a height of ten or twelve feet, erect, branched. The stems are very white, appearing as if they had been whitewashed. The flowers are produced in profusion, white, each blossom nearly an inch across; they are succeeded by well-flavoured fruit, as large as a usual-sized Raspberry, and of a beautiful orange or deep amber colour. It is not valuable for an ornament for the shrubbery, but would be a handsome agreeable-flavoured fruit for the table.” Thank you to the Botanical Magazine, from whom The Floricultural Cabinet sourced their information.

Problem is…. Firstly, “not valuable for an ornament for the shrubbery”? No. Rubus biflorus, and the related Rubus cockburnianus, are superb shrubs whose white stems provide invaluable bright winter colour.

But there’s a conundrum. I’ve never seen the amber fruits on R. biflorus because to produce the best display of white stems, and to keep the plants well below the mature height of 3-4m, the plants are cut down to the ground in early spring. And the stems you cut down are the ones that carry the berries.

So if you grow Rubus biflorus, or the black fruited R. cockburnianus – leave a few stems unpruned and check out the flavour.

Is one of our best known gardening writers. A graduate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Graham was previously Gardening Correspondent of The Observer.
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