Dahlias – the Barbara Windsor’s of the Flower World!

Dahlias

Dahlias

When I started my horticultural career as a jobbing gardener at Haringey Council in North London, much of the work was mundane and pretty unrewarding. However every day during the late summer and until the first frosts, my heart was lifted by the technicolor blooms of an astonishing collection of dahlia plants. Their serried military ranks filled one corner of the large nursery that was the base for our day’s work and every day I made a detour to receive their joyous benediction before facing the harsher realities of removing rubbish from shrubberies along the Great Cambridge Road. I never did understand what, if any, their function was within the Parks Department, but I suspect it may well have been the Nursery Superintendent indulging his particular passion, this was a more easy going era before the chill wind of competitive tendering swept away any such indulgences!

WDC_VIP_9063Since that time I have always had a soft spot for their cheerful, “Carry on up the Border”, brassy and flamboyant charms. For many years deeply unfashionable and frowned upon by the more “sensitive” Bloomsbury like fashionistas of the Gardening World they are now enjoying a revival and once more grace the gardens of those in the know. And quiet rightly so because nothing else has the floral firepower nor flaunts such brilliant, clear colours to brighten the season when so much else is descending into autumnal subfusc tones. The razzamatazz of their blooms is fortunate because frankly their foliage is not a selling point, coarse, pinnate and potato like, with probably the only exception being the purple and dissected leaves of that most acceptable of dahlias, the semi-single and deep red “Bishop of Llandaff”.

WDC_VIP_9073They can be used in the border and are strengthened and work best when combined with plants whose main feature is their foliage such as grasses, Ricinus communis, the Castor Oil Plant or cannas, but the traditional way has been as I first experienced them in my youth, grown as specimen plants in their own border. As a consequence that’s how we grow them at West Dean Gardens, a whole bed of them in our cut flower area, because they make the most vibrant cut flower to light up the dullest room.

photo2They are simple to grow requiring only a reasonable soil, generous feeding and lots of sunlight, they are definitely not a shade plant, some pretty heavy duty staking and tying before they start to produce flowers and most importantly rigorous and clinical deadheading every 3-4 days, without this they will soon look messy and stop flowering if allowed to produce seed. Generally they are pest and disease free but can be susceptible to aphid infestation, easily controlled or more seriously virus attack which can’t be controlled and sadly, affected plants should be destroyed. Some people suggest lifting plants each late autumn is unnecessary but we still lift ours after the first frosts have turned their tops to mush, wash the soil off the tubers, dry them upside down and then store them in a frost free shed covered in spent compost to stop them shrivelling too much. They are then brought out again at the end of April, soaked in water if they are dehydrated and then planted with the tops of their tubers four to six inches below ground and so the cycle begins again.

WDC_VIP_9090Come and see our collection now, they look joyous and you can pick out your favourites and order them for next year!

 

 

 

West Dean Gardens, often described by visitors “as the best Gardens they have ever seen” are open daily from 10.30am to 5pm. We are 6 miles North of Chichester, are clearly signposted off of the A286 and have an excellent restaurant, shop and plant sales area that are open to all, not just garden visitors.

House opening A1 poster no bleedOur next event is the opening of West Dean House (College) on the 6-7 September from 10am to 5pm when you will have a rare opportunity to explore the former home of Edward James, lifelong patron of the Surrealists.

Jim Buckland
Gardens Manager

 

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West Dean Gardens – August 2014

WDC_VIP_8951Wow! What a difference warm weather makes to a garden! So far this summer the flower display in the cutting garden and on the borders in the Walled Garden is looking fantastic with the rudbeckia trial taking pride of place. Beneficial insects and butterflies are having a field day too. However lots of sun means that watering is high on our list of daily activities, particularly in the glasshouses; but with willing hands- including those of volunteers, we get through it each day in reasonable time.

This year the Sunken Garden is attracting a lot of attention from garden visitors and the press. Many visitors are astonished that it is now complete after years of being in a state of ruin and Jim Buckland the gardens manager, with his beady eye, is keeping the exuberant plant growth under control. Like many planting schemes it was overplanted initially for immediate effect and now requires a considered eye to remove the excess. All the hard work re-establishing the sunken garden was recognised recently with a Sussex Heritage Trust Award – hoorah!

Summer fruit tree pruning takes place through July and early August, current season’s growth is removed to help form fruit bearing spurs and to bring the shape of trained fruit back into line. Have you seen the splendid fruit tree shapes created in the Kitchen Garden? Many are reaching maturity and are dead easy to create for yourself at home if they take your fancy. I believe the magic ingredient is brown coated electric flex which bends easily into those lovely shapes you see and onto which you tie your branch or stem to form the shape.

vicki isted june 2014 gardensThe latter part of July was taken up with shearing the wild flower displays in the Arboretum. These displays get better and better each year. If you are a regular walker in the Arboretum then you will appreciate the progression through the seasons and about now we’re beginning to look towards autumn and the colour that brings. St. Roche’s Arboretum-still a great place for a walk, stroll or stomp- your choice, and the exercise there and back, will work up an appetite for one of those delicious cakes and the requisite cup of tea in the Gardens Restaurant when you return.

During the early part of this month a lot of weeding and tidying takes place all over the gardens as the team prepares for the Chilli Fiesta August 8-10th. The wild flower grasslands are razed in time for tents and stall holders and hopefully the weather will hold as it makes the experience so much more pleasant for everyone and encourages a more carnival atmosphere- which is not normally found in West Sussex that’s for sure. Of course if you are camping then calm sunny weather is a must for a superior experience, so although a drop of rain would be nice right now not for the Fiesta please!

WDC_VIP_9133This year’s West Dean Chilli Fiesta 8-10th August promises to be a fantastic three day event with a much wider programme of entertainment than before. Never been? Not your thing? Why not come along and see for yourself, and do come and say hello to me- I’ll be delivering growing demonstrations throughout the weekend- see West Dean website for details. http://www.westdean.org.uk/chilli

Sarah Wain
Gardens Supervisor

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West Dean Gardens – July 2014

June was a wonderful month for a garden visit to West Dean and July looks set to be the same. Plenty of sun filled days after the relentless winter rain have put a skip into the visitors step as they come along to enjoy all aspects of the gardens and there is certainly plenty here to tempt them.

WDC_VIP_9426Within the Walled Garden, Stuart, one of the woodies (gardeners who look after trees and shrubs) plus our French volunteer Franck have been taming unruly cordon fruit trees whose summer growth requires a decisive snip to bring them into line once again and see their shape restored. Wonderful! The same thing is happening in the vine houses where extravagant growth from the vines has been removed by William (another woodie!) so that once again they look like cordons instead of triffids.

vicki isted june 2014 gardensWhen you are in the Walled Garden you might see two gents, Malcom and Mario, replacing the top vents on some of our ¾ span houses, as after over 100 years the vents no longer operate as they should. So by renewing and rebuilding we hope that these glasshouse galleons will sail into the future for others to enjoy. Elsewhere under glass the chillies, double cordon tomatoes and aubergines are growing strongly and producing fruit. Along with regular feeding they receive regular doses of biological control agents which come by post and are used to control pests on plants – mealy bug and red spider being the main two. Visitors are always welcome to open doors to have a look at what is being grown in each house unless advised otherwise.

We are also in the process of potting up some of the small plants in the decorative houses. Glasshouse gardener Chris is selecting plants which need a larger container and rearranging the collections once they have returned repotted. It’s a time consuming task requiring an artistic eye to create a pleasing display and… wait for it…the bromeliad house is once again full of plants so do take a peek, it’s the house at the end of one of the pit houses.

vicki isted june 2014 gardensIn July the Kitchen Garden is burgeoning with summer crops, the potatoes have been harvested by ‘Shaun the Kitchen Gardener’ and now a crop of leeks stands in its place. Courgettes are cropping and the next generation has been sown ready for the top border in a month’s time. All the peas and beans are standing to attention and even the outdoor tomatoes are thriving – so far. There are plenty of benches in the Kitchen Garden where you can sit and watch the workers work – always fun especially as you don’t have to assist!

For the first time the meadow grasslands in the gardens and the arboretum are being cut and baled by agricultural machinery wherever possible. Hopefully this will cut down on the time required to complete the task. The wild flower displays, plus increasing populations of orchids, gave great delight in spring but now we require this space in the gardens for this year’s shows hence the mowing. However a further display of wild flowers will develop under the fruit trees in the Walled Fruit Garden over the next couple of months for everyone to enjoy.

Don’t forget to check out all the borders. These are located along the pergola, in front of the house and in the Walled Garden and for heaven’s sake get yourself up to the arboretum at least once this year- you’ll be ever so pleased with yourself for making the journey and delighted in the views. Don’t forget tea and cake in the Garden Restaurant on your return.

vicki isted june 2014 gardensExciting News – the Sunken Garden has won the Sussex Heritage Landscape & Gardens Awards 2014. The Sunken Garden has recently reopened after a six year period of restoration.

It’s that time again…are you ready for our hot annual event? Make a note in your diary for the West Dean Chilli Fiesta 8-10 August 2014, see http://www.westdean.org.uk for details.

Sarah Wain
Gardens Supervisor

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Hydrangeas

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Hydrangeas

As the dog days of August approach and other flowering shrubs give up the ghost those stalwarts of the late summer border, the hydrangeas, come into their own. The common hydrangea, H. macrophylla, has spawned a huge range of varieties that divide neatly into two main types, the lacecaps and the Hortensias, or more descriptively the mopheads. The latter, also known as florists hydangeas, were originally bred as pot plants and were the classic floral decoration for tarting up the podium at significant municipal events where their brassy flowers were only outdone by the chains and gongs of the mayor and other civic dignitaries. These were unsuitable for outdoor cultivation but numerous garden varieties are now available.

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Hydrangea “Annabelle” by Apple store at West Dean Gardens

Whilst not being the most subtle of blooms they nonetheless have a bouncy, Barbara Windsor like vitality about them as they sprawl and bulge under the weight of their fleshy, deep green leaves and outrageously over the top “afro” flower heads. This “Carry on up the Border” quality combined with a colour range that tends to the day-glo makes them ideal for a bit of “in yer face” seaside jollity but not so suitable for low key, subtly nuanced schemes! Where subtlety and sophistication are required the lacecaps are a better bet as the impact of their flowerheads is softened by the combination of a central plate of fertile flowers surrounded by a ruff of the larger, infertile ray flowers, similar to the Viburnums. Finally, continuing their slightly fairground quality remember that both types have the chameleon like capacity to produce blue flowers on acid soils and pink ones on alkaline soils such as at West Dean Gardens. Don’t be fooled by names like “Blue Wave” if you live in the Downs because she’ll be pinker than a stick of Brighton rock!

Hydrangea sargentiana on Woodland Walk

Hydrangea sargentiana on Woodland Walk

Whilst enjoying the “full on” feel of the common hydrangea it has to be said that the more refined pleasures of the other species and their varieties are generally more companionable and easier to place in the garden. With similar flower power to a mophead but of a more understated nature H. arborescens “Annabelle” has a graceful, open habit that errs on the pendent as its stems are bent over by the weight of its large, spherical creamy-white flowers. This characteristic that lends it to spilling down a bank or casting its cloak over front of border plants that are past their best. Larger and stiffer, H. paniculata is vigorous, spreading to upright, and bears large conical panicles of creamy white flowers that become tinged with pink as they age. “Praecox” flowers early in June, and is very informal and pretty but the most popular variety is “Grandiflora” which has massive flowerheads of mainly sterile flowers in September, a real late season blast! Slightly earlier and a little less over the top by dint of its mix of sterile and ray florets H. paniculata “Floribunda” is a more understated choice. Even more subdued is the N. American H. quercifolia, the oak-leaved hydrangea. Here it is the foliage that is the major attraction, like oak leaves on testosterone they are a cool soft green, colouring rich tones in the autumn, the pyramidal cream turning purplish flowers are pretty good to! H. aspera subsp. sargentiana is another strikingly foliaged beast. Here the leaves are very bristly and very large, up to 25cm, and evenly but fairly sparsely distributed over the stiffly upright framework of stems creating a dramatically sculptural effect when well grown. Like most of the hydrangeas the flattened terminal flower heads of blue-purple fertile flowers surrounded by white sterile ones also age well remaining on the plant in ghostly, sere form till next spring.

Hydrangea macrophylla with Agapathus in foreground

Hydrangea macrophylla with Agapathus in foreground

Closely related but with a different feel is what some consider to be the Queen of the tribe, H. aspera Villosa Group, previously known as H. villosa, aah the wonders of nomenclature! In August there is no lovelier shrub as its well shaped dome of downy foliage is smothered with lilac-blue flowers, combined with Pennisetum alopecurioides, Sedum spectabile and Rosa glauca its one of the highlights of the late summer garden. Finally we shouldn’t forget that there is also an extremely useful climbing member of the family, H. petiolaris. With the same self-clinging capacity as ivy and with similar vigour it is a wonderful, more unusual subject for cladding shaded walls. Its handsome dark green leaves which colour rich yellow in autumn plus its domed white flowers in June- July make it an invaluable climber, its pretty good at cladding old tree stumps or trunks as well.

Hydrangea panic ulama

Hydrangea panic ulama

Cultivation of Hydrangeas is pretty straightforward but a few basic points are worth noting. Firstly, the name Hydrangea comes from the Greek for water vessel a reference to the shape of the seed capsule, but it might better refer to the genus’s fearsome capacity to suck up water faster than a thirsty elephant! Be warned, a large specimen can hoover up more than 100 litres a day so a moist but well-drained, moderately fertile soil is essential. In areas of low rainfall and sharp drainage partial shade is preferred but in wetter, cloudier climes full sun can be tolerated, either way shelter from cold or drying winds is required. Pruning of H.quercifolia, H.aspera subsp. sargentiana and Villosa group and H. petiolaris is minimal consisting of the removal of spent flower heads in the spring as growth recommences. H. macrophylla and H. arborescens “Annabelle” are dealt with by removing all weak, spindly growth plus a proportion of the older less productive wood to the ground each spring and then tipping back any damaged branches by up to 30cm to a fat bud. H. paniculata can be pruned as H. quercifolia etc but to obtain really huge flower spikes it is best to establish a permanent framework 25 to 60cm high depending on its position in the border and cutting all growth back to the lowest pair of buds above this framework each spring.

Jim Buckland
Gardens Manager

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June – a peach of a month!

gfr.820 Peach Duke of YorkHaving just passed the longest day, 21st June, I think it’s fair to say that summer is here and so far it’s proving pretty good, fingers crossed! That combined with a mild and moist Spring means that West Dean Gardens is probably looking as good as it ever has in my 23 years as Gardens Manager, so if you haven’t yet paid us a visit then make sure you do so soon.   If you come in the next few weeks you might well be able to buy a punnet of our fabulous peaches and nectarines that are just starting to be picked.

079The production of top quality fruit for the “big” house was an important part of the Walled Gardens historic role and within that, overall brief glasshouse fruit production was the highest demonstration of the fruit gardeners art. In the restoration of the Walled Garden in the mid 1990’s we decided that we would try to revive that tradition and as a consequence still have two fig houses, three vineries, a dedicated nectarine house and a further 4four fan trained peach trees on the rear wall of what had originally been two orchard houses, but that now grow tomatoes in the summer and protect plants needing a frost free environment overwinter.

 

gfr.790 Fan trained FigOur peaches and nectarines are all grown as fan trained trees and, as with all trained wall fruit, rely on having a robust wire support system of tensioned 12.5 gauge (2.5mm) galvanised wire, approximately 3mm of the wall and at 23cm spacings, on which to train and tie the branch framework. Again, as with all plant training, the most important stages are the formative ones and these can’t be skimped or hurried, suffice it to say that to produce a decent fan you need to start with a feathered maiden and then follow the steps as described beautifully in Harry Baker’s “Fruit”, publisher Mitchell Beazley, out of print but is the best guide to fruit pruning for the novice, well worth seeking secondhand. Alternatively Michael Pollock’s “Fruit and Vegetable Gardening” is also good and in print. gfr.783 Nectarine blossomWhatever your guide you are looking at, it takes four years to get the thing established and ideally you should not let it fruit at all in the first couple of years so that it’s energy is focused on establishing a strong framework. Despite that it’s well worth the wait because there is nothing more sensuous than eating a perfectly ripened, sun warmed white peach fresh from the tree. The old story was that they should only be eaten in the bath because they are so full of nectar like juice that you can’t avoid getting drenched eating them! However, they are awkward to harvest as they bruise as soon as you look at them. The secret is to gently cup them in the hand and give a slight twist and if it doesn’t come off in the hand it isn’t ready. But having gone over the trees early in the morning it is frustrating to go back a couple of hours later to find half a dozen of those fruits that seemed so firmly attached earlier now lying pulped on the floor two hours later! But the pro’s certainly outweigh the con’s so have a go or at least come and have a look at ours (but do not handle the goods!!)

Jim Buckland
Gardens Manager

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West Dean Gardens – June 2014

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Wild Flower display

Last winter’s rain has acted like rocket fuel to the gardens, there is fabulous growth on trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials everywhere. As a result the early season wild flower display was floriferous in the extreme – always a glorious sight. Shortly it will be mown down (before it falls down!), however there will be a second flush of wildflowers allowed to develop in restricted locations for late season enjoyment.

ImageColour is coming to the borders, roses are strutting their stuff and the yellow and blue border is beginning to look exactly that – yellow and blue. Here we’re winning the battle with Nigella (love in the mist) which seeds everywhere if left to its own devices- but what a lovely plant! New plantings opposite the Pergola and in the Sunken Garden are being lovingly attended by garden volunteers and staff and are worth a visit if you haven’t yet been to the gardens this year.

Under glass, William – who 079normally manages trees and shrubs throughout the gardens with Stuart, has been pruning the grape vines and thinning bunches of grapes. In each bunch over 50 % of the grapes are removed to allow the remainder to swell and develop comfortably. It’s one of the most laborious tasks we do in the glasshouses but very rewarding. The peaches are colouring up too although the colour is deceiving as they are still rock hard…but not long now! Elsewhere aubergines, chillies and tomatoes are all potted or planted in their respective glasshouses ready to develop and produce the goods.

Pesky snails and slugs have proved to be a challenge this year, after the mild rainy winter there are squadrons of them roaming the beds. They have reduced a few plants to an unrecognizable state which is not a common occurrence with us as we don’t generally have hoards of them. Just shows how each season brings its own set of challenges.

Anne ‘the Border Queen’ has completed the planting and sowing in the cutting garden area and will now be paying attention to its upkeep. Like a spinning top she rotates from border, to border pinching back, weeding, staking and tying in where necessary. Her workload is relentless at this time of year and it requires an energetic person like Anne to keep on top of it all.

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Shaun ‘the Kitchen Gardener’

Shaun ‘the Kitchen Gardener’ has been erecting hazel and cane supports for various crops such as peas, beans and small gourds in the Kitchen Garden. The gourds have just been planted along with celery, more peas, dwarf French beans and chard and the next generation of parsley has just been pricked out ready for harvest in July through to the winter. Winter squash are about to go into the ground as are a selection of grafted tomatoes – let’s see how they cope with the great outdoors. We’re even training a couple of tomato varieties up wigwams just to see how productive they can be.

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St Roche’s Arboretum

As ever, St Roche’s Arboretum beckons those who delight in a healthy stomp before a hearty West Dean tea-break or lunch at the Gardens Restaurant. I really do entreat you to make the effort to see for yourself the wonderful landscape at the top of the valley – just follow the orange markers along the track through the Parkland into the Arboretum.

Design and Craft Image

2 for 1 Offer until 12th June, quote AOH241 http://www.westdean.org.uk/designandcraft

Like all gardeners at times we feel as though we’re struggling with the weed population and after the winter rain the weeds are showing unrestrained vigour. Jack who’s in charge of looking after most of the grounds, and his merry band of volunteers hope to have all the gardens weed free in time for the Design and Craft Fair featuring MADE, 20-22nd June 2014. Come and try your hand at the crafts on offer, you may be pleasantly surprised by your latent talent!

Sarah Wain, Gardens Supervisor

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The Chelsea ‘Chop’

The 'Chelsea' Chop

The ‘Chelsea’ Chop

Jim4Chelsea week is the one time of the year that gardening dominates the airwaves and takes centre stage in the public’s mind which is slightly curious because as any “real” gardener knows gardens are an all year round obsession that occupies one’s thoughts and efforts for 52 weeks of the year . It is that constant input and long term commitment that really produces the results and offers the rewards. I am therefore a little ambivalent about the razzamatazz of theatrical horticultural perfection, seemingly achieved in an instant, that Chelsea and other shows purvey to a ravening public desperate to be told that you can buy a perfect garden in the same way you can buy a perfect interior if you throw enough money at it. Having said that the whole show is a triumphant tour de force demonstrating huge skill and dedication from all involved in its presentation and I was oohing and aahing along with everyone else as I wandered round, just don’t mistake it for the real thing!

Jim6So fantasy aside what have we been up to at West Dean Gardens over the last few weeks? Well Chelsea has given its name to more than the Show as we now also have the eponymous “Chelsea chop”. No, this is not a karate move or a particularly succulent cut of lamb but a simple device used to reduce the bulk of and delay the flowering of a wide range of herbaceous plants such as sedums, geraniums, acanthus etc. Like most things horticultural it is not an exact operation in either its execution or timing and is dependent on a number of variables including the nature of the plant, the effect desired and the season that year. Thus this year is “early” so the Chelsea chop was in fact happening a couple of weeks prior to the event, nonetheless the name is a useful aide memoire. One of the plants that we “chop” annually are the larger Sedums such as “Autumn Joy” as left to their own devices their crowns tend to overextend themselves and then flop out from the centre as the flower heads develop. By cutting the developing crown back to about 3” at about the middle of May they will remain much more compact and self-supporting. It’s as simple as that and well worth experimenting with anything that tends to flop in your conditions, plants are generally forgiving and rarely die because of an ill-advised intervention on the part of the gardener. However if you really want the low down on the subject there is no better guide than Tracy Di Sabato’s book “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden”, which although written for the USA market is still an exemplary guide.

That aside May is undoubtedly the “crunch” month when everything needs doing at once and even the best organised gardener begins to doubt whether everything will all get done in the right time frame. This has been a particularly balmy spring but mild temperatures, reasonable sunshine and regular showers mean that the grass is growing apace and our usual weekly cut is barely enough to stay on top of the growth, waiting until your lawn looks like a silage crop is not a good policy, once a week is! With the risk of frost past we are furiously trying to get all of our annual displays and half hardy perennial material out of the frames where they have been hardening off and into the ground. This has the added benefit of reducing the amount of time spent watering pots! Under glass many hours are being spent pruning, tieing in and deflowering the grape vines. Experience has taught us that time invested now pays huge dividends. By getting the fruit bearing framework properly trained at this stage you can then afford to be a little more relaxed when they start fruiting and reduce their growth rate. Early investment of time nearly always pays dividends in the garden.

jim3But despite the pressure don’t forget to look up and smell the flowers! Good luck!!

Jim Buckland, Gardens Manager

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