Big Boys and Dainty Damsels

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I had hoped that with the gardens now closed and with shortening days I would have more time but forgot as I often do just how long it takes to put the gardens to bed. There is so much to move under cover and the tunnels frames and greenhouses are now bursting and there is still more to try and fit in.

I also pay the price at this time of year for my dalliances with tender perennials planted in the borders especially salvias, which I dig up (usuully frantically at last minute and in the dark!!) to provide cuttings for next year and hopefully to save the mature plants to bed out next year when all risk of frost has gone. Cuttings are so easy even now, provided they can be kept frost free and a 100% strike rate is not unusual.

We much enjoyed the Plant Fair at Hergest Croft and spent far more than we intended, as did many of the other vistors, judging by the beaming smiles of the stallholders for whom this was the  last fair of the season.

We had the week off after the Plant Fair when our friends Sylvia and Tony from Gloucestershire stayed with us and we had lots of outings.

We are also pleased that this month Carmarthenshire Life magazine ran a 2 page feature on the Gardens and the work of the NGS with which we were well pleased.



Overall a very enjoyable month mostly mild and dry but with some wetter interludes and 4 air frosts culminating on 24 October in an overnight low of -5c. This saw off most of the tender stuff and gave us the opportunity to start clearing up and putting plants under cover where necessary. Heat is needed now in tunnels and greenhouses on colder nights as there is still a lot in flower there to lift the spirits

There was a brief but quite strong gale last Friday which brought many leaves off the trees which was such a shame as they had not quite reached their full glory. Fortunately the liquidamber is still looking amazing in shades of deepest red, the euonymus alatus is on fire and deepening all the time and 2 large cherries which need a very special type of autumn to colour well, change imperceptibly from day and are about to start their swansong red stage. All the native trees in the surrounding countryside are in their best autumn colours, a nice antidote to the depressing end of summer time and the clocks going back. Brace yourselves for the "mud, slush and the darkness"!


Garden update

A major job this month has been re-turfing areas of the lawns in both Gardens to repair the ravages of last winter parts of which have not quite recovered and the effect of having 750 visitors this summer. I have also started to consider the impact of the plantings in many of the borders, to replace plants which have out grown their allotted spaces, or become tired as herbaceous perennials tend to do after a few years. Better or new cultivars have become available and our tastes change too. Visiting other people's gardens also acts as a wake up call! It is amazing when you think that some major public gardens refresh all their borders every year and sometimes effect 2 or even 3 plantings a year. I can only marvel at the energy, imagination and cost to do this which is far beyond our capabilities. We also need to replant shrubs, trees and some key anchor plants that have not recovered from last winter. If we can do this soon their successors will have chance to settle in before the worst of the winter weather arrives.

I have taken cuttings of many tender perennials to overwinter in frost free conditions. They are so easy and a strike rate of 100% can usually be guaranteed. Ideal subjects are salvias, verbenas, arctotis, argyranthemum, plectranthus, brugmansias, penstemons, fuchsias, and pelargoniums.

At last I have been able to gather a reasonable quantity of seed from a good cross section of plants in the garden from annuals, perennials, climbers and bulbs. It had been too wet to get many before now or to dry them properly. There are paper bags hanging up all over the propagation tunnel. At last count I had nearly 60 different types of seed for sowing. Some has already been sown such as meconopsis and the buttercup tribe which need to be sown fresh as they can go into dormancy and may never germinate. A cold frame is all they need overwinter. The rest will be sown in early spring and I usually find that germination rates from our own seed is far better than from most commercial seed suppliers.

I have also started next seasons vegetable growing by planting out garlic earlier in the month and sown more winter salad crops in seed trays and mushroom crates to keep in the tunnels all winter long. They just need to kept frost free with heating or fleece; they can be brought into a cool room in the house or frost free garage in cold spells. To save time I buy "living salad" packs from supermarkets and prick out the already substantially lettuces into trays for growing on. Living herbs too from supermarkets can also be treated in the same way. Regularly harvested they will produce leaves well into next year. Quick germinating seeds of oriental leaves such as pak choi, mizuna, tasoi, various leaf mustards and rocket can be sown throughout the winter and have also been very succesful and come to harvest very quickly from seed. They add piquancy to salads and can be used in stir fry dishes. Watercress too is an amazing crop to grow and does not need to be in water to flourish.


What's looking good?

Until the severe air frost last week the Gardens still had lots of late colour from asters, dahlias, rudbeckias, echinaceas, sedums, and salvias (some of which actually survived -5c) The stars though are what I lovingly refer to as the Big Boys and Dainty Damsels. In the perennial world many of the Big Boys need time to reach their full potential so we have in no particular order a variety of 6 foot plus helianthus and rudbeckias, salvias and aconitums to 5 feet, brugmansias to 11 feet and the stars tree dahlias to 8 foot and a tree fuchsia to 6 feet. All I can say is Treemendous (corny yes but you must agree it makes a change from absolutely fabulous!!) I love plants you can look up to and keep us in our place.

However not to be outdone but in a more subtle and feminine way are the Dainty Damsels. Many happen to be in shades of pink which heightens the illusion. Stars are the naked ladies (colchicum cutivars and species whose large but weather and slug susceptible flowers come in huge numbers before the leaves hence the name), cyclamen hederifolium with such lovely leaves that last well into next year long after the flowers have gone (dainty but bone hardy) and saxifraga fortuneii cultivars from the Far East - shade and moisture lovers which is unexpected but welcome in this genus. Many have good leaf colours, a liitle like heucheras to which they are related, and wonderful starry flowers in shades of pink (again!) and white. Some of my favourites are "Wada", "Conwy Snow", "Sugar Plum Fairy" and "Black Ruby". If the weather is kind some will flower until the end of November.

Final mention must go to a salvia I have coveted for a long time and finally acquired this year from Special Plants near Bath (good old Derry!) It is called Salvia splendens, like the bright red bedding variety seen in municipal gardens and many front garden bedding displays. However this is another Big Boy up to 4 feet. Van Houttii is the one usually encountered and although it is a fine plant there are numerous other cultivars which have the benefit of flowering earlier in the season. From Derry I obtained "Jimi's Good Red" and it has put on a brilliant show with large dark red flower and purplish calyx. Comes easy from cuttings too. What more could you ask? For more info. about Derry and her fabulous nursery go to



The last swallows and martins gradually melted away in the first week of the month. Sad to see them go as it reminds us that the dark days of winter are not far away. Confirmation of that came yesterday when before breakfast a raiding party of fieldfares arrived from northern climates to feast on the rich berry harvest especially good this year on the large hawthorn in the Paddock Garden, They had almost cleared the tree before being disturbed by a sparrowhawk, who I am glad to say went away without any breakfast!

We see red kites here almost every day so when Moira suggested that we went with Sylvia and Tony to the red kite feeding station not far from where we live, I thought she must be nuts to want to spend £3 to see them when we can see them for nothing at home! Nothing could have prepared us for the spectacle of over 50 kites (probably more) swooping down to feed no further than 30 yards from the hides where we observed them. They are fed at 3.00pm (2.00pm in winter) and circle around in ever decreasing circles towards the food put out for them. Then almost on cue they all sweep down brushing aside optimistic crows, magpies and buzzards that also come to try and feed. No chance -they are so ungainly compared to the kites. It is an unforgettable and moving sight when you consider that less than 40 years ago there were under 10 breeding pairs left in Wales. Go and see them if you can. For further information see


Visits and talks

Although the Gardens are now closed for the winter we are taking bookings for groups and individuals next year from June until the end of September. Please contact us if you would like to pay us a visit.

We also give talks during the winter months and although we already have 20 talks booked, still have some free dates if you would like us to deliver a talk to you club or society. Our talk range is shown elsewhere on this website, but other talks can be considered if they are within the field of our experience and sufficient notice is given.

Finally our NGS Open Day next year will be. on Sunday 24 July from 1 - 5.00 pm with teas and plants for sale as always.