Head Gardeners Diary – Autumn 2018

08/10/2018

For me, and for the gardens at Killruddery, the weather during 2018 and more particularly it’s resultant effects has been most extraordinary. We began the year in a reasonably benign fashion (bar a storm or two), but by late Winter as we all recall we were experiencing some very challenging conditions. Come Spring – a very late one this year, and cool too, we were seeing massive fluctuations in day and night time temperatures, bringing particular problems to the nursery side of our activities. But, surprisingly, the greatest difficulties were probably brought about by the very warm and prolonged dry spell in Summer, causing firstly a halt in growth, followed by scorched, hardened ground, cracks appearing in our clay soil, lawn margins shrinking back from kerbs…the list goes on.

Of course we watered, though in a very targeted fashion. Despite the obvious lack of growth around the gardens – (for example Box hedging here is always clipped twice yearly, sometimes getting a third clipping, this year it was clipped once), and the equally obvious stress on plants generally, we seem to have lost very little, although there are pockets of dead plants here and there. One of the more positive and interesting observations is the new planting (completed around March) near the ticket office, which fared surprisingly well. This area was planted with a good many species tolerant of the open, sunny site we had, and true to type, needed little watering, especially for newly planted material. Roses certainly enjoyed the heat and the dryness, little evidence of some of the usual fungal attacks and good rates of flowering in general. Of course, any watering we did do, was against the backdrop of our reservoir here in Killruddery dropping daily…another cause for concern. Thankfully, now around mid September, we’ve had some rain (not enough…) and things are greener, the pull on water supplies a little less, and I suppose we’ve ‘weathered the storm’ if I may use that phrase. However, for me, it’s something of a lost year in many respects, with growth having been so poor. Also, it saddened me to see the gardens burnt up and browned, looking so far from their best. Every cloud though, has it’s silver lining…it was pointed put to me, that the blue of the Geranium ‘Rozanne’ – flowering away as always, contrasted beautifully with the brown of the grass…

Another positive has to be the early signs from our initial forays into reducing the heights of some of our hedges. This is something that will take several years to complete across the various areas. The purpose of carrying out this work is to encourage some lower growth on some of the very old plants, and to reduce the weight in their upper regions – this reduces vulnerability to wind damage, increases light to lower parts of plants, and hopefully eases or simplifies a punishing maintenance schedule. Our window in which to work on these type of jobs is limited, through consideration to good practice, as well as pressure of other work, be it maintenance or development. It was the intention to make a more significant start on all this last Winter, however due to external factors,we were able to allocate only the briefest of openings, particularly in terms of the deciduous specimens. We did manage to complete one row of Carpinus in the angles – very old plants, some in poor condition. Considering the state of some of the individual specimens, the manner in which the response has occurred is most heartening. Also completed were one side of the Yew hedge bordering the Angles and Elizabeth’s walk. This too is looking pretty good. There would have been much more regrowth but for the very dry summer, and in the medium to long term I feel confident this rejuvenation will be a success. There’s at least 2 or 3 more stages in this hedge, to be completed over 2 or 3 years. Completing jobs of this kind in stages not only makes them more manageable in terms of a work programme, but very importantly, spreads the ‘shock’ on the plants, allowing a degree of recovery before the next onslaught…

Best response of all has come from the Viburnum tinus hedge, bordering the water stops. A funny ol’ hedge…some of the plants within are growing out of the low stone wall here, and a lot of gaps and variable growth throughout. We took a couple of feet off the height, and removed a small amount of lateral growth on the outside of the hedge, provoking a really positive response. The ideal here, (only with a strong, vigorous specimen) would have been to cut the hedge down far harder, even to a foot or two from ground level. This method, timed correctly would ensure a strong, uniform response, however, in our case, we needed to maintain the cover and structure provided by the hedge. Every hedge is different, and at times, a cautious approach is best. Generally speaking though, deciduous specimens should be tackled in Winter (when dormant), evergreens in Spring when coming into growth. In the case of evergreens, feed in advance, watch for watering, and remember to do in stages. In most cases, best advice is to remove the top first, getting light and air to the centre of the specimens in question, tackling the sides in subsequent years.

Right now, it’s seed harvesting season, running roughly from late summer to early Winter, depending on species. With some plants, collecting the seed is very straightforward. Timing is an issue – too early and you’ll get unripe seed, too late and you may find it’s been dispersed already. A good example, that many will relate to is the poppy. We’ve all seen the brown, dried up seed heads, almost like little drumsticks. Shake them and you’ll hear the seed rattle around – this is ready and very simply harvested. Any harvested seed should be cleaned and stored in paper bags or envelopes, ahead of sowing. Making sure it’s well dried before cleaning – I then use sieves, tweezers, the tip of a knife etc. to remove any bits of leaf, seed pod or general debris. This is best done before storing, as any foreign material present may encourage mouldy conditions, thus compromising the viability of the seed. Remember to label seed when collecting.

Also in the Nursery, we’re approaching the end of our time for taking cuttings. Most of the propagation by cuttings that we carry out is done from mid summer, to late summer/ early autumn. I’ve always enjoyed all forms of propagation, generally planning ahead with a couple of years in mind, depending on where in the garden may need some freshening up, or of course a quick cover up of a previous failure… There’s always a bit of time for some experimentation regarding propagation attempts…and the occasional indulgence. Sometimes too, a particular plant that you previously paid little attention to might resonate with you, and prompt a desire to produce afew additional clones. This year, exactly this happened for me with 3 different Philadelphus shrubs, planted many years ago, in a very tucked away spot and somewhat neglected in recent times. They flowered beautifully, and so, I returned to them to collect cuttings. Unfortunately, due to the previously mentioned neglect these specimens had suffered, there was no usuable material at all – the best cutting material is derived from younger shoots and stems with energy and vigour. As a compromise, I’ll take seed instead, and prune the plants pretty hard to encourage a pro

liferation of growth, hopefully usable in 12 months or so as cuttings….again planning ahead…

Soon enough, we’ll be bulb planting. Garden centres, and I suppose some supermarkets are now stocking all the usual suspects. I’ve yet to place my order, buy I’ll have to keep it a little smaller this year, as pressure of work for the coming period is already making time noticeably tighter. I’ll stay with my – some classy (never gaudy!) daffodills, some Allium, and maybe a couple of others…it’s always hard to resist more Erythronium or Cyclamen.

Of course, sitting here this morning, lots of wind outside right now, it’s impossible to overlook one of the more mundane, and repetitive of annual tasks. Leaf collection can be a nice burst of physical activity, or it can be the greatest nuisance…I suppose it’s a matter of outlook. I would reiterate the usefulness of leaves in terms of composting – they are of course excellent in the compost heap, and are one of the very few materials that can on their own make great compost, without any other constituents. Also remember to avoid the danger of damp leaves piling up on paved areas – a definite slip hazard.

In fact, speaking hazards, as I complete this entry, I see various items flying past the office window…a tree has come down in the nursery, crushing a large number of pots and plants grown for a specific area…our plans for today are in tatters, similar to the tear in the roof of the tunnel, flapping loudly in the breeze….

Oh well… at least things are never too predictable here at Killruddery…

Daragh Farren

Head Gardener

September 2018