Hedging, Jorge, Plants

alternatives to buxus

Forgoing box is a real shame as it possesses all the characteristics required for low maintenance natural hedging. It responds well to clipping, and is slow growing, often needing to be cut only once a year, with growth usually between 10 and 15cm. It is also frost resistant and native to the UK, being cultivated since at least Roman times. Sadly, due to the current box blight epidemic, box is no longer the premium option, as the disease can destroy years of work to which the gardener can do little to stop. However, using other plants can be seen as a great opportunity to experiment, which makes gardening so enjoyable in the first place. There are so many underappreciated alternatives that can produce stunning delineated gardens.

Obviously, no plant will be exactly like box and the shape (and colour) of your hedge could be very different. If you wish for a substitute for box, however, Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) is a highly popular choice that is extremely hardy and small leaved, although sadly fast growing; henceforth, it will need to be trimmed multiple times in the summer to encourage dense growth. As it is only semi-evergreen, there is also the possibility of the plant shedding its leaves in extreme bouts of cold. Another possibility is switching to artificial topiary that is visually identical to box, and virtually indestructible, although its shape is limited to the manufacturer’s designs.

alternatives to box

Other worthy alternatives include the Griselinia littoralis, Euonymus japonicus and Elaeagnus ebbingei. The Griselinia is notable for its soft glossy leaves, average growth rate and responsiveness to clipping. The Euonymus is usually two-tone with cream bordering the edges of its otherwise green leaves, although it can variegate greatly in full sunlight. The plant is hardy and suitable for nearly all soil types, although will need maintenance to ensure denseness. The Elaeagnus is a great alternative as it is dense, hardy and responsive to clipping. It is also fragrant in the autumn with the emergence of white flowers.

One of the best species of natural hedging has to be the Taxus baccata, commonly known as the English Yew or Common Yew; it is very hardy, average growing, dense and great for birds, which love its berries. For more colourful alternatives, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and sometimes heather, can be grown into hedges. Key for lavender is to cut it before it flowers, or otherwise it will lose its shape. It is great for wildlife, fragrant and evergreen.

common yew

Due to the box blight epidemic, the RHS Garden Wisley are currently trailing 25 alternatives to boxwood. The varieties that have performed well include such plants as the Kilworth Cream (Podocapus nivalis), Sunshine (Ligustrum sinense) and Tom Thumb (Pittosporum Tenuifolium). The team has found that the Podocapus versatile, and responsive to clipping; the plant itself can be described as extremely small leaved, and darker in colour than box. The Ligustrum is slow growing with vibrant yellow leaves, the Pittosporum purple and compact. Also of interest is how the Pittosporum is a source of food for animals in its native New Zealand and is thus hardy and responsive to clipping.

Do you have any experience growing hedges? We’d love to hear from you. Post in the comments below!

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Dakota Murphey, Garden Design, Gardening, Plants

It’s ironic that one of the most influential men in English gardening history was actually Irish. William Robinson was born in 1838, and studied horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin near Dublin. As a teenager, he worked at a grand garden in Waterford, then on the estate of an Irish peer, before moving to London in his early twenties.

Gravetye Manor Hotel
Photo by Nigel Freeman

His job at Regent’s Park – looking after hardy plants and wildflowers – must have had a major influence on his gardening predisposition, and Robinson soon became a vociferous opponent of mixed herbaceous borders of hardy perennial plants and the strict, formalised Victorian gardens of planted-out bedding arrangements.

At 29, Robinson began working for the influential magazine, The Gardener’s Chronicle, and in 1871, he launched his own magazine, The Garden. He also started writing gardening books, of which The Wild Garden (1871) and The English Flower Garden were the most successful. First published in 1883, The English Flower Garden went on to become one of the world’s best-selling gardening books of all time.

William Robinson changed the face of English gardens, turning his back on the rigidity of flower garden design at a time which had, he noted, ‘thousands of plants set out in formal and geometrical array, the result, a bad carpet’. His ideas about growing hardy perennials in mixed borders to create a more natural look were radical at the time and were directly opposed to the Victorian practice of planting numerous annuals in large formal blocks. Robinson even criticised the Garden of Versailles, calling it ‘terrible’!

Robinson was most vocal against ‘pretend’ Italian and French gardens, standard roses, and other ‘tricks’ common in garden design at the time. He preferred, instead, to use close-packed plantings of perennials and groundcovers that expose no bare soil; alpine plants in rock gardens; and the liberal use of native plants and hardy perennials. These ‘wild’ plantings furthered Robinson’s ideas of a garden being one that blends into the larger landscape of the water’s edge, the meadow and the woodland.

In 1884, using income and royalties from the magazine and his books, together with money from some property deals, Robinson bought Gravetye Manor, an Elizabethan house and farmland near East Grinstead in West Sussex. This is where he lived until his death, planting, experimenting, writing and acquiring more land – eventually he owned more than 400 hectares.

Much of the estate had been managed as a coppiced woodland in which Robinson planted huge drifts of cyclamen, scilla and narcissus (in 1897 alone, he planted somewhere in the region of 100,000 narcissi). On the edges of the woods, and in cleared spaces, he oversaw plantings of lily, Japanese anemone, pampas grass and acanthus, together with hundreds of shrubs such as stewartia, nyssa, and fothergilla.

In flower beds closer to the main house, he planted red valerian, which he allowed to spread naturally around paving stones and staircases. Under the trees that surround the lake, he planted thousands of daffodils that in spring present a truly amazing sight.

William Robinson
Photo courtesy Gravetye Manor Hotel and Restaurant

In the first chapter of The English Flower Garden, Robinson compared gardening to art, and wrote: ‘The gardener must follow the true artist, however modestly, in his respect for things as they are, in delight in natural form and beauty of flower and tree, if we are to be free from barren geometry, and if our gardens are ever to be true pictures. And, as the artist’s work is to see for us and preserve in pictures some of the beauty of landscape, tree, or flower, so the gardeners’ should be to keep for us, as far as may be, the living things themselves.’

In 1899, Robinson extended the house, adding stone walls which were the perfect backing for perennial beds and a formal garden. A short distance below the house, he created a wildflower meadow and also planted hundreds of trees. Among these is a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), which is one of the oldest and largest in Britain.

The extraordinary walled vegetable garden he created is oval-shaped, south-facing, and covers an area of nearly 1 hectare. Walled gardens are known to be substantially warmer than the ground outside and at Gravetye the difference is around 3-4 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, when Robinson died in 1935 at the extraordinary age of 96, the gardens were neglected until the 1950s, when Gravetye Manor was opened as a hotel by Peter Herbert, who worked on renovating the garden until his retirement in 2004.

The new head gardener, Tom Coward, is following in Robinson’s footsteps, ensuring colour and ‘wildness’ in the formal and informal flower beds from late March until the end of October, and overseeing some much-needed restoration projects.

Garden enthusiast, Dakota Murphey, wrote this article. Working alongside one of the UK’s leading garden designers, Andy Sturgeon.

Flowers, Jorge, Plants

cherry-tree-flower-in-winter

Plants are intelligent inasmuch as they only flower when the light, age and energy conditions are appropriate to allow the plant to reproduce successfully. To do this, they have developed at least 20 different senses to monitor the complex conditions in their environment and are able to take into account factors like humidity, gravity and even electromagnetic fields. Plants differ greatly in their evolutionary strategy, and possess a diffused brain of sorts as to process information. This is why unlike, say mammals, plants are able to survive a significant loss of body mass.

Most plants flower in the spring or summer when the heat-sensitive bees are ready to facilitate conjugation with trees nearby. Spring is usually preferred because it gives the resultant fruit more months to soak in the heat and sunlight to produce fructose, which feed the sugar-crazed mammals and birds that the plant needs to spread its off-spring far from the mothership. Winter doesn’t work so well as the worker bees are otherwise occupied maintaining the temperature of the queen bee.

bluebells-flower-in-winter

Some, however, such as snowdrops and bluebells, have carved out a niche that allows them to gain a step up over their competitors. By flowering in winter, they are able to survive quite happily in real-estate that most plants can’t – that is, under the heavy bows of large deciduous trees, deep inside the ancient woods. In places where even grass can’t grow, these plants thrive as they utilise their bulbs as an energy storage device that they fill up in the early spring when the sun is weak and the trees leafless. By the time the big trees are fully-leaved, the plants have done their work for the year and their dark leaves are already dying off by the end of spring. The sugars produced by photosynthesis are converted to starch and withdrawn deep into the earth-bound bulb for protection. And by choosing this tactic – the protection of the mighty deciduous trees – they’ve avoided competing with the most ruthless of summer plants like grass.

But what of the winter-flowering trees like the Mahonia and Cherry tree? Most likely, the winter-flowering trees found just a few insects to spread the pollen. And because there were no other flowers around at the time, the winter-flowering trees had hit on a limited but good-enough niche.

mahonia-flower-in-winter

And what are the winter-pollinating insects and why do they seek out flowering-plants in winter? Recent research has shown that one of the UK’s most common bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) is achieving comparable foraging success in winter on plants such as Mahonia to that achieved in summer months. There are also a few moths that, just like many plants, have evolved antifreeze in their blood to prevent the formation of ice-crystals when the temperature falls below zero.

So, therefore just like the winter-flowering plants, insects have crafted themselves their own niches to ensure the survival of their species.

bombus-terrestris

The Science

Many plants flower in time for a particular season by responding to the length of day, a process known as photoperiodism. While scientists do not fully understand how plants do this, it is accepted that when a plant flowers is related to its genes and external environment.

In plants, scientists have identified the CONSTANS and DNF (DAY NEUTRAL FLOWERING) genes as the key mechanisms that regulate a plant’s flowering time in response to day length. In the Arabidopsis plant, scientists recently identified a faulty DNF gene that led to abnormal flowering times in mutant plants. The DNF acted to repress the activation of the CONSTANS gene until light levels rise above a certain threshold in daytime. Hence, once a functional DNF was introduced into the plant, the abnormal flowering was corrected.

In a separate study, scientists identified the sugar molecule trehalose-6-phosphate (T6P) in the Arabidopsis thaliana as playing an essential role in controlling flowering time in relation to energy reserves. As such, once a certain day length was perceived by the plant’s leaves, a mix of photoreceptors and other proteins would lead to the expression of the FLOWERING LOCUS T (FT) gene that would migrate proteins to the tip of the shoot, triggering the expression of flowers. However, as a failsafe, once the plant reaches a certain age, it would begin to flower anyway regardless of day length. As flowering is an extremely intensive process for the plant, energy too must also be available in the form of sugar. Here, the T6P sugar molecule would act as a signal for energy levels, regulating the production of FT protein. Thus, the T6P acts to influence both of the two most important pathways to flowering – the expression of the flowering gene and the production of the flowering protein.

Ultimately, greater understanding of the complex pathways that control flowering times will allow farmers to reduce uncertainty and thus boost their agricultural output.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Gardening, How To, Jorge, Plants

forcing vegetables

Forcing fruit and vegetables in winter is fun way to ensure you have a steady supply of fresh greens for your family. It involves producing crops out of season through replicating the environmental conditions necessary for plant growth. This quirky custom dates back to at least the 1600s, but achieved peak popularity with the Victorians, when the better off sought to impress their friends with spring salads.

Forcing Rhubarb

forcing rhubarb

Forcing rhubarb is an easy way to start experimenting with forcing plants, and can be done throughout the winter, although it works best in January and February. Simply start by removing weeds and leaves around the rhubarb crown, and place some fresh mulch. Then use large cylinder (preferably a pot) to cover the crowns, plugging any holes in the process. This exclusion of light will start frenzied growth, and the stems should be ready in only eight weeks, provided the soil is kept moist! You can harvest when the stems hit the roof of the pot, although 20-30cm of growth is to be expected.

It is recommended that you use established plants as the young ones may not have sufficient energy reserves, and that you do not force again for 2 years as the process leaves the plant susceptible to disease. If you are in colder climate, or are expecting a harsh winter, insulating the pot will be necessary. The warmer it is, the faster the plant will grow, and 18-20°C is the optimum temperature. Unsurprisingly, as the rhubarb is deprived of the light, it will be unable to photosynthesise, and will appear paler than usual. Also noticeable, is how the resultant stem is decidedly less bitter, supposedly due to less sugar.

Forcing Strawberries

forcing strawberries

Forcing strawberries can be a little more difficult, but the key is to expose the plant to the cold until at least February, before moving it to a warm environment. This extended cooling is necessary to convince the plant that an extended period of warmth is about to begin, thus signalling the changing of the seasons. When choosing which strawberry plants to force, you can try older plants that perhaps performed poorly in the year, but if you are really keen, you can plant runners up to a year and a half early, and cultivate the plant’s root system through picking off its flowers.

Now, what kind of warmth are we talking about? An unheated greenhouse can produce a small crop, but instead it is better to use a either a propagation mat or a greenhouse heater to raise the temperature a small amount. Now, if you wish to keep your strawberry plants outside, you can use a cloche that can be removed on the milder days to attract bees.

paintbrush-pollination

Once you decide to move to the plant into the warmth, it is now time to apply some TLC. First remove dead leaves, runners and weeds and give them a dressing with mulch. Then as it is cold outside and there are no bees, you’ll have to do the pollinating. Grab yourself a paintbrush or cotton swab and rub it over each of the flowers as often as possible. (Some gardeners do this daily!) Finally it’s time to start the watering regimen, that is until the fruits finally ripen, when you should let the earth dry out. (This helps concentrate sugars in the fruit.)

Forcing doesn’t just have to be used in winter and other vegetables that are historically forced include Chinese Beansprouts, Chicory, Dandelion and Seakale. For fruits, gardeners have reported success with tomatoes and even pineapples. Do you have any experience with forcing fruit? If so we would love hear from you. Post in the comments below!

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Share!