Fog.... and more Fog

A few weeks ago (in December) the whole garden and estate was shrouded in fog for days. Flights started to back up at the airports, and the whole world had gone quiet. High pressure does a wonderful job of creating a sense of stillness and quiet in the garden. I love this atmosphere, even though its so cold going down the drive on the bicycle!

Then the sun starts to seep through the murk and walking around the garden looks completely different - I guess you are only focusing on the ground as these is a white blanket above, so details seem to jump out at you much more. There is little you can do outside on days like these where the frost doesnt lift, so its a good chance for us to tidy the greenhouses and vinery.

November colour in the Garden

We are getting later and later frosts these past few years, so the first frost now seem to occur in November, rather than October. This helps prolong the colour in the borders, although as the winters are now effectively shorter, this leaves us with less time to thoroughly clear the borders - yes, it really does take about 4 months to tidy, clear away dying foliage, weeds, move stray plants and fork over the all the beds at Toddington Manor.

When we have the first frost it always seems to catch me by surprise - the summer evenings seem so recent and the borders still look good. I always keep a close eye on the water forecast so all the large summer pots placed around the garden with tender margurite Daisy's are all safely tucked away in the frost free vinery.
The dahlias and cleomes still look great while the frost is still on them, but tomorrow morning all the cells will have been ruptured and turn the whole bloom to a dirty sodden brown lump - not so attractive!
Our rich red rhubarb chard will not suffer so badly - the outer leaves may be for the bin, but the inner leaves will still be able to be harvested. In fact, this is one ornamental vegetable I would not be without in the ornamental potager. It seems to tolerate heavy rain, drought, pests leave it alone, it is easy to germinate, looks gorgeous whilst patiently sitting there waiting for a gardener to harvest the rich red, crinkly leaves.
It is even listed as a super food along with the equally spectacular kale. They both have an 'acquired' taste, which basically means they are both quite bitter compared to the ordinary vegetables you can buy at the supermarkets, but combined with other vegetables, especially in soups, they are really quite good.

Autumn leaves

Have been very busy of late with another project, but have found a little time over the holidays to update you all on whats been happening over the past couple of months at the Manor.

We have had a very windy Autumn in Toddington this year. Not so good for gardeners as working on days when the wind incessantly blows can really wear you down somehow - the gardeners have been talking about this and the end result was that if you wear ear defenders whilst weeding, it doesn't affect you at all, so it must be the noise that makes your head 'busy'!
Feeling pretty daft while wearing them though!!!

Its lovely when the wind blows when the leaves are falling though, as we use petrol powered leaf blowers to move the leaves of our lawns, (which means wearing the aforementioned ear defenders.) Otherwise the worms end up dragging them down under the soil, and really makes the lawns quite messy. Also, the leaves collect in sheltered corners and if left to sit there for more than about a week the grass underneath will yellow and even die eventually.

Toddington Manor is very lucky to have some wonderful trees on the main lawn, and some of these colour well in the autumn, such as...

Red Horse Chestnut (aesculus x carnea)

Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

Golden Robinia (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia')

Growing Ratatouille in the greenhouse!

As this summer has been so long and warm, the vegetables we have been growing in the greenhouse have loved the conditions and we have harvested a wonderful crop.

The Aubergines are swelling bigger and bigger and the colourful peppers are ready to be picked. We have been growing a colourful selection this year including some black one, which eventually ripen to bright red.

Whitefly has been a bit of a nuisance through the summer, but we have controlled this organically by spraying soft soap onto the underside of the leaves, where the whitefly tend to collect.

Watering need to be regular and using tomato feed on all the plants each week has helped the plants to crop well, and stay healthy too.

All of these plants can also be grown in a sunny sheltered spot in the garden, but will benefit from a period in the greenhouse in spring to give them the long growing period they prefer to fruit well.

A bumper crop of tomatoes were grown, again relishing the long summer, and the sweet gardeners delight were delicious.

Another easy crop we grew were the chilli peppers. They not only look fantastic, but add a real kick to the ratatouille!

Great Dixter - gardeners day out

Every year the Gardeners enjoy a treat- a day out visiting a garden with the owner of Toddington Manor, Lady Bowman-Shaw. This year we all agreed that Great Dixter, home to Christopher Lloyd who passed away earlier this year was to be the one.

It was a girls only day out for Barbara, Debi Rachael, Lady Bowman-Shaw and myself, as Tony was waiting for his new baby to be born imminently! Just as we arrived the heavens opened and we had to wait for the rain to pass, sheltering under the precarious old entrance porch.

We then thoroughly enjoyed looking around the garden, trying to identify plants we were unsure of, and appreciating many of the sucessful plant partnerships that Great Dixter is so well known for.
Many of the combinations rely on annuals, bulbs and half-hardy perennials being planted out throughout the year, so although it looked fresh and colourful, we all agreed it looked like continual hard work!

The main parts of the garden were in the main quite traditional, although with flamboyant use of colour, while at the front of the house, the exotic garden and the cactus juxtaposed against the 15th century manor house caused many comments as it was so much fun. Many of the plants were tender, so were unfamilar to the gardeners growing outside, but everything looked healthy and well cared for, obviously loving the hot summer we have had this year.

We always have a notepad to write down ideas for Toddington Manor, and we are definately planting more crocosmias for next year, Crocosmia 'Citronella' caught our attention, and Atriplex hortensis var. Rubra looks like an annual well worth planting, and an unusual elder, Sambucus formosana with fantastic orange berries.

Croquet lawn 'Umpires Bank'

At the back of our quintessential English Croquet Lawn, we have a border we call Umpires bank. Whether or not the game of croquet has an umpire, I am not sure, but it is called this because originally there was a rather awful hard surface tennis court surrounded by an equally attractive chain link fence. When the owners children were young, this was a great addition to the garden, but as they all grew up and moved away, it was not really getting much use. So Robin, the previous head gardener replaced this with a croquet lawn, which transformed this area.

As the fence was removed, umpires bank became more visible, so we have improved the planting here. As it is viewed from a distance, bright colours add impact, such as the wonderfully statuesque Inula magnifica, and brick red day lilies. Orange-yellow Helenium 'Waldtraut', evergreen punctuation marks of Hypericum 'Hidcote' , feathery plumes of bronze fennel and two Laburnums stand sentry each side of the umpires bench!

The croquet lawn has suffered this year because of the drought, and although we have not got a hosepipe ban in our area yet, the searing heat has meant the lush green sward of last year is a memory at the moment. But grass has the wonderful ability to start growing again as soon as the weather becomes kinder to plants again.

Inulas are lovely architectural plants for the back of this border, with their large leaves and yellow daisy flowers and the bees are clambering over one another to get to the pollen this week

Liriodendron tulipifera - aka the Tulip Tree

Toddington Manor has a wonderful backdrop - many established specimen trees planted by the previous Victorian inhabitants. One of these is a fine example of a Liriodendron tulipifera, you can see how large it has grown in the photo. It is on the right hand side, on the left is a wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and a Red Horse Chestnut (Aesculus x carnea). It has now finished flowering, but many visitors merrily walk past it without looking up, missing the hundreds of flowers tucked between its leaves. As they are a similar shade of green as the leaves, from a distance, the flowers just look like browning leaves.

But up close - wow!

Immediately you can see where the common name originates from. The flowers last for just about a month during June and are about the same size as an average tulip flower.

Also worth mentioning are the unusual leaves, with lobes and a notch at the tip which makes it look like it has been cut off. These turn a lovely buttery yellow in Autumn.

potager for vegetables and cut flowers

Our ornamental potager at Toddington Manor is growing away now, after dire weather for the first six weeks or so. This is Rachaels (our WRAGS trainee) project this year, to design a planting plan, which was colour themed with rich purple and reds, along with creamy white cut flowers such as ammi major, antirhinuums, helianthus 'Vanilla Ice' and wonderfully scented sweet peas - 'Beaujolais' and 'Mrs Collier'.

Earlier on May 2nd, we organised a workday for the WFGA (Womens Farm and Gardens Association) to plant and sow our potager. Members pay a small fee to attend the workday, and have chance to be taught new skills, we manage to complete the sowing and planting in one day, and we all enjoy the cakes! The gardeners had started sowing seeds back in March in the greenhouse so a few plants have a head start before being planted out in modules. Others were sown direct into the prepared soil.

Rain followed the following day, and was followed by cold wet horrible weather for the next two weeks - not great conditions for seeds to germinate. The plants sat and sulked also, until the sun came out, and for four weeks, baked dry under the relentless hot sunshine.

Now... I know gardeners tend to moan about the weather (it is never quite right!) but it has been extremely unusual this year. The result is that a few seeds didn't make it, so have been resown and to add insult to injury, a rabbit seems to have made its way into the walled garden, and is enjoying the lettuce...

But nature has its own way of dealing with these trials, and although, as the photo shows, it is a little bare in places, it will catch up and be as beautiful as it was last year. The sweet peas , mange tout (the curiously named 'Ezethas Krombek Blauwschok'), ammi major , euphorbia oblongata are all flowering well, and as I write this, the vase of sweet peas smell wonderful!

Growing tomato plants

This year we have made time to grow a few indoor crops in our Victorian greenhouse and vinery, including Cantaloupe melons (Blenheim Orange), Ridge cucumbers (Marketmore) and 3 different varieties of Tomatoes (Gardeners Delight, Sakura F1 and Brandywine)

We sowed our Tomatoes on 6th March in a heated propagator, by 21st March they were ready to prick out into larger, individual pots.

The trick with tomatoes is to keep them moving itno a bigger pot as soon as the roots have filled the pot - without letting them get potbound.

Three pot sizes later.... and they also needed tying in to a cane, to stop them falling over. We create a neat figure of eight using string, and not too tight as the stem will expand as the plant grows.

All our varieties are cordon tomatoes or indeterminate, which means the main shoot will continue to grow - given its own way. However, the growing tips will be pinched out after a certain number of fruit trusses have formed depending upon whether it is growing in the greenhouse, vinery or outside.

With this type of tomato, the side shoots need removing so growth is directed into the developing fruit, not excess foliage. At the axil of each leaf the tiny shoot is just pinched out with my fingers. If you miss one, it will get quite large quite quickly, so be sure to keep a eye on them!

As they need watering most days in the warm weather it is easy to look along the stem each time to see if any need removing - and you enjoy that lovely scent of tomatoes each time it is bruised - takes me back to my childhood each and every time!

Constant watering is best - they dont like being either waterlogged or too dry, but a little every day ensures the fruit will not be prone to splitting. Also, we spray a few whitefly with insecticidal soft soap on the tips.

10th of May, so about 2 months after they were first sown, the first exciting tiny green tomatoes are developing now - we now start feeding every two weeks with a high potash feed to ensure the best quality crop.

Plenty of high temperatures and sunshine means the fruit grow quickly and start to ripen, the first to turn red is Sakura F1, and looks like Gardeners Delight will be next, all by the 8th June. Picked fresh and warm from the plant, a quick wipe on my sleeve - I really should just check if they are fully ripe yet!!!

Paeony 'Duchess de Nemours'

One of our many Paeonies, the white cultivar 'Duchesse de Nemours' just opening in the morning sunlight.

Geranium magnificum and Paeony

You can't get a more sumptious combination than this!

Iris Sibirica 'White Swirl'

A wonderful clear white, with a hint of yellow at the base. This iris prefers
damp soil and some shade.

Angelica archangelica

Angelica archangelica flowerheads add a lovely structural element to the herbaceous borders

Garden Open Day

Our Annual Garden Open Day was a great success, with over 600 visitors to the garden. The weather was how you would describe as 'changeable' with a few short, sharp showers for good measure, but spells of welcome sunshine too. Still too nippy for the end of May though!

As we have had awful weather for the last two weeks - very cold and wet, the flowers that are usually looking great were still tight in bud, but the hostas, alliums and bluebells were looking perfect (if I dont say so myself!)

As all 5 gardeners were helping on the advice desk and selling plants we had propagated ourselves, we were able to sneak out for a visit to the other gardens in Toddington that were open on the same day. The ones we managed to visit really were quite varied and different, and in each one, there were ideas that could inspire other gardeners, be it how to deal with a difficult shady spot, awkward levels, tiny spaces or recycling in the garden - gardeners are the most inventive people out there, I am sure.

Fascinating Tales from the past

On the open day we had the pleasure of meeting two very interesting people. First was a gentleman, who introduced himself as the grandson of a previous Head Gardener, Horatio Plumb who worked at Toddington Manor for Colonial Skinner in 1914. Unfortunately he did not have any photos of Horatio at the manor (that would have been wonderful to see) but is was very interesting to talk with somebody who has direct links with the history of the manor. It would have been SO interesting to talk to Horatio him self - I bet a few things have changed since he was Head Gardener! (I wonder what he would of thought of a female in charge?!)

Then a lovely lady introduced herself as a evacuee in the Second world War, who arrived with her mother and 5 brothers and sisters to spend the duration of the war in the safety of the country, while bombs were being dropped on London. Again, a lot of changes have happened, but the memories were fascinating to hear.

It is great for people to make the effort to revisit the Manor that have a place in their family history, and to hear their stories.

May in the Garden

Well, what a month! Apologies for not posting much this month, but we seem to have not stopped work at all. The saying 'March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers' has not applied to 2006.

More like 'May wind and May showers bring forth May flowers'!

Still, we can cope with whatever the weather can throw at us, we are hardy gardeners... The last week has been spent mowing, tiding, sweeping, weeding, rushing, and changing wet gloves for a fresh pair each break, as we get ready for our open day on the 29th, Monday Bank Holiday.

The plants are revelling in the lush conditions, and when the sun does come out, I am sure you can hear the leaves growing. As you can see in the picture, the alliums and bluebells along the length of the Herbaceous Borders look stunning at the moment, the ferns and hostas are unfurling and euphorbia charachias subsp. wulfenii with its acid green flowers adds a lovely, sharp edge to the colour scheme.

Put it in your diary, only 4 days left to go - and the weatherman promises no rain!

Hosepipe ban - watering plants

In this part of Bedfordshire, we have escaped the hosepipe ban so far, but it is still early in the year.

But we are lucky that the Victorians were so resourceful, as our lovely old greenhouse and vinery has a large reservoir built underneath to catch all the rainwater from the glass roofs, and safely stored until we need it. It is much better for the plants, rather than using the local hard water and as it is pumped up to a smaller tank in the greenhouse, the ambient temperature is raised too, so it is far less of a shock to delicate seedlings when they are watered using a fine spry with the watering can.

Speaking of which...we use Haws metal watering cans, they are such a good, long lasting design, and the only part we have replaced in the last 13 years is the rose, which tends to split along the welds - but not bad for the use it gets.

Helleborus orientalis still looking fabulous

Our 100 metre long herbaceous borders have drifts of hellebores positioned just behind the hostas flanking both sides of our old stone path. Before these unfurl during spring the hellebores are the highlight of the borders.

They have been flowering for about a month already, but as the 'petals' are not really botanically correct, rather they are sepals - which are far more weather resistant (you can just see in the photo the true petals peeking out from the dark centre around the stamens).

We have a creamy white variety for most of the borders, but in the middle beds a riotous mix of cream, pink, purple and nearly black, all with various spots and streaks.

The white ones do have a certain air of dignity about them - but you really can't beat the mixed colours against a clear blue spring sky.

Sowing seeds and more seeds...

The greenhouse is a frenzy of pots, seedlings, trays and watering cans. This time of year, however big your greenhouse, it always ends up shuffling pots around as they grow and fill their allocated space, seedling get pricked out and use up 10 times their area, and young plants need transferring to our frost free vinery to start hardening off before planting out.

The last few seeds are going in the propagator now, large seeds of the Melons and Cucumbers for training up the metal framework in the vinery - compare these to the tiny grey-white seeds of brachysome, hardly visible when sown. It is always interesting when growing from seed opening the packet of something you have not tried before. The shape, colour and size of different seeds are so varied!

Just remember the rule of thumb for beginners sowing seeds - cover the seed with about the same depth of compost, this way the food reserves can power the seedling to the surface. Too deep and it will run ot of energy before it reaches the surface. The tiniest seeds do not even need covering, just ensure they are kept moist. And there will always be exceptions to this rule as some seeds require light to germinate so if you can always check before you cover them up!

Spring mulch on the borders

We are now well underway with the spring job of mulching our borders. The green waste does an excellent job of covering up those tiny weed seedlings that are just germinating as the April sunshine and showers are providing perfect conditions for them. As they are annuals, they just do not have the root system to cope with an inch of mulch on top of them, so they will die.

Whereas the perennials tolerate the mulch well, as long as you avoid throwing it right on top of their crowns, they look lovely too, the dark colour showing up the fresh green leaves at this time of year.

The job is made a little easier by using our 3-wheeler to transport the mulch as close as we can get it to the borders, and from there it is all shovelled on by hand - this usually brings on the first afternoons wearing t-shirts as its as energetic as it sounds!

Green Waste Mulch

Hey, can you guess what the gardeners will be doing over the next 6 weeks? The clue is in the photo!

We had our delivery of mulch last week, for all the beds in the garden. It is 50 cubic metres of Green Waste, garden clippings collected and recycled from your green wheely bins and local councils garden waste in the dumps, all composted and reused as a mulch and soil improver.

We have been using this for the last 6 years or so, and have never had any problems with weeds, disease or pests appearing. It is wonderful for mulching and we spread a generous layer on all our beds, which look wonderfully neat after this, a rich dark colour.

I shall post a photo of work in progress soon - and yes, it is all shovelled on by hand...

Climbing roses neatly pruned

Our climbing roses in Georges Bed are all neatly pruned around the wooden posts they wind their way around.

By training as close to the horizontal as far as practical, the hormone that promotes growth, Auxin, is more evenly distributed along the stems, rather than rushing straight to the tips as in a vertical stem, therefore encouraging more flowers lower down on the plant.

This year we are planting Clematis viticella cultivars 'Kermisina', 'Niobe', Polish Spirit' and 'Blue Belle' to clamber up the poles alongside the roses, to add extra colour during Summer.

Hardy ferns get the chop!

After a close inspection, our hardy ferns look just about perfect for their annual cutting down. Just look inside all the old leaves, and see if the new little fronds are looking like they are ready to burst into growth.

If you cut off all the old leaves before they start to unfurl it is a much quicker job than when they have started as you must be careful not to damage any of the new growth. We leave all the old leaves on until this stage, as it gives them a little protection against the harsh winter frosts.

Its also a good chance to clear any old leaves, debris and snails that have made their home in the the lovely dry base of the plant before spring arrives.