Some classic golden oldies from some yellowing and crumpled news cuttings

TURFING OUT a pile of ancient cuttings and catalogues from cupboards and drawers today, I stumbled across four badly-yellowed pieces of newsprint which I was about to screw up and toss into the waste bin.

But then I spotted the headline on each small sheet – Garden Trivia. And that made me smile.

No idea which publication they were snipped from, though I was given clues on the reverse of two of them as to how long they had been gathering Anno Domini-ageing.

One was an advert for Thompson & Morgan’s orchid flowered petunias dated 22nd April, 1995, and the other for a brand of body lotion from Debenhams with the same date.

So after 25 years it was probably time they were committed to the compost heap!

But here, for a little levity, is a random pick of Top Twenty trivia, courtesy of crumpled and fading sheets of info:

In the old days, clay flowerpots were referred to as forty-eights or fifty-sixes, the number that could be fitted into the kiln for firing.

The largest plant family in the world is that of the orchid with almost 20,000 species.

■ When you water the garden remember that a inch of water will travel nine inches down into the soil.

Pineapples used as gate finials in the 17th century were a sign of plenty and generosity.

Hollyhocks will ward off fleas, as will camomile.

Hollyhock Halo

■ Plants with grey and hairy leaves prefer to grow in full sun rather than in the shade.

The young shoots of ground elder are edible.

Stored onions will sprout if kept in the dark but potatoes will sprout if kept in the light.

■ Old tights and stockings make handy tree ties.

The first popular gardening magazine was published in 1826. Its name was The Gardener’s Magazine, founded by John Claudius London.

The late entertainer Bruce Forsyth is a descendant of botanist William Forsyth (1737-1804) after whom forsythia is named.

Bruce Forsyth

Nice to see you: Entertainer Bruce Forsyth (above) had a close family link with the springtime shrub forsythia. Top – Hollyhocks are said to keep the fleas at a distance.

■ Bees Seeds were established in 1905 and named A Bee & Co by its founder, Arthur Bulley, after whom the candelabra Primula bulleyana is named.

Since 1948 gardeners have been permitted to grow their own tobacco plants without having to pay excise duty.

Air plants are relatives of the pineapple and have no roots but extract the moisture they need from the atmosphere.

■ Some say that if seeds of unscented annuals are soaked in rose water before they are sown they will smell of roses when they bloom.

The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was the largest greenhouse in the world when it was completed in 1840.

The Crown Imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, sheds tears from the inside of its blooms.

■ A hoe works better if it is filed sharp so that it severs the top growth of weeds from the roots.

Fruit trees often shed some of their fruits during June – a natural thinning process known as the “June drop”.

Half an ounce of radish seeds will sow a 50ft row.

INTRODUCING A GARDENING BOSS CALLED . . . WEED

Y

OU simply couldn’t make it up – the head of the august Royal Horticultural Society is none other than Mr Weed.

Yes, Keith Weed has been voted in as RHS president. But that’s not all – his mother’s maiden name was . . . Hedges.

Keith, 59, formerly marketing chief at Unilever, says his first task will be to ask gardeners not only to keep their patches beautiful but to make our environment more sustainable.

Among the current RHS staff with appropriate names are Matthew Pottage, curator of RHS Wisley, Jo Sage, head of major grants, Suzanne Moss, head of education, and Gerard Clover, head of plant health.

And let’s not forget former RHS curator Jim Gardiner, writer and author Adrian Bloom, TV and radio personality Bob Flowerdue and – for those of a certain age and older – dear old Bill Sowerbutts.

 

Dazzling dahlias?Grow them and admire them but don’t dare write them off!

Dhlia collerette3

SEARCH my senses if you wish, but fact is I cannot quite explain why I’ve never fallen in love with dahlias. And at a time when they are being idolised as never before.

Unlike most flowers, these queens of flouncy flamboyance have swept in and out of the fashion stakes for decades.

They are currently very much in vogue, as they have been for some years now.

As I’ve said many times in “dahlia dialogue,” they are the flowers with a thousand faces – OK, not to be take too literally, though they do have a cast of hundreds in ten different styles and innumerable colour mixes. So variety is clearly the spice of life in dahlia-speak!

So what about my unexplained aversion to these Mexican beauties?

Well, not averse to all, I must add, for I do carry affection for the one type that for reasons which are equally puzzling have never proved a top ten chart grabber.

These are the collerettes which originated in France at the turn of the century and which have a unique regalia of an outer ring of flat petals as well as a ring of smaller florets, usually in a contrasting colour, that resemble a collar.

Now enter a spelling conundrum. Note that it’s a collerette, not a collarette, even though it’s a likeness to a collar, not a coller!

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Well, blame the quirkiness of our language for such an apparent lack of logic here, though the late respected dahlia doyen and old pal Philip Damp always insisted that the “e” was correct, even though many trade catalogues persist with the “wrong” spelling.

I do grow a few collerettes, mostly inspired by my friend Terry, from near Bath, who adores these forms and grows a host of fabulous specimens in his colour-rich garden.

Problems with all types of dahlias are – admittedly – few, and here in the south-west I just leave them in the ground all year, protecting the tubers with mulch if the mercury dips dangerously low.

One of my plants, called War of the Roses, hasn’t been moved for nigh-on 20 years and faithfully emerges in late summer with its randomly painted red and white blooms.

Yes, earwigs often get their fill of the petals, usually raiding at night, aphids can strike, slugs sometimes slide in with their slimy artillery, and woodlice will chomp away in damp weather.

All these irritations, though, can be kept at bay with traps, barriers, soapy water or various sprays.

Dahlia collerette Fashion Monger (Holl)

Despite my personal reservations, I do identify with the thousands who grow and show dahlias in all their myriad of colour and characteristics.

They all sing and dance, they blaze an extraordinary trail of brilliance – right now that’s at its best – and it seems inconceivable that the current craze will fade in the foreseeable future.

For the benefit of novices, the groups in 1-10 order are: 1, single flowered; 2, anemone flowered; 3, collerette; 4, peony flowered; 5, decorative; 6, ball; 7, pompon; 8, cactus; 9, semi-cactus; 10, miscellaneous.

On top of this, a further classification is split five ways according to size – giant flowered, large flowered, medium flowered, small flowered and miniature flowered.

Talk about being spoilt for choice! Take no notice of my coolness for all these hot hues – collerettes excepted – and go splash them across the garden.

Always remember to dead-head for long-lasting blooms and go online for a copy of Phil Damp’s 1980s book Growing Dahlias, still regarded as the exemplary guide to success with these premier league champions of colour.

Oh, and do bear in mind – there’s much for to dahlias than the veteran Bishop of Llandaff, the 1924-raised scarlet stunner with bronze foliage that was not only way ahead of its time but has since become the trigger for the succession of popularity surges.

What a difference a dahlia makes: Some examples of the lovely collerettes and (above right) how the beautiful dahlia transforms from this ugly tuber.

Go sow a bed of poppies: They’re top of the charts for cascades of colour!

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TAKE a poppy’s seed capsule, turn it over and catch the “whoosh” of seeds as they cascade out.

There will be thousands of them, tiny jet black dots that are smaller than small.

Now take a peek at the seeds you have collected and consider this: These are seeds from just one pod, as pictured here, so imagine the tens of thousands from half a dozen capsules.

Each one of those specks translates into a plant, whether it’s the ever-popular hairy perennial oriental poppy, the diminutive alpine poppy, the vivid red field poppy, the fragrant Icelandic poppy or any one of the 70 species of annuals, biennials or perennials that bring a joyous glow to our gardens all summer long.

The one species I’ve not mentioned is Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, one of the few that are totally hairless and are strictly annual.

A succession of bowl-shaped flowers will emerge in many shades, including white, impressively 4in wide and some with dark spots at the petal bases.

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Now I’m going to resist the temptation to recite those well-worn slogans and headlines such as Top of the Poppies or They Call it Poppy Love and say that poppies are the one ubiquitous family that we all wish would last longer in bloom.

Fact is, though, that many species, including somniferum, have a fleeting floral lifespan, opening under the sun in the morning and shedding petals by eventide. Those that unfurl in early afternoon will obligingly close their petals at sundown and unfold next day – but their moment of glory is always so, so brief.

As long as you keep snipping off the spent heads – a routine known as dead-heading – more and more buds will follow. Or if you are a fan of flower arranging, just save a few pods and allow them to dry . . . but remember to send those seeds scuttling to avoid cascading them in the wrong place.

Against what most books will advise, I tend not to scatter seed across the soil in the hope for germination against several odds, including  heatwaves, deluges and hungry birds and insects. I prefer to surface-sow in trays, thin out any overcrowding and plant out when they are strong enough to look after themselves.

The deep mauve-pink poppy pictured here is an unknown variety that came into my possession by quirky chance. It happened when I spotted a seed pod lying on the ground in a bus shelter in Maastricht, Holland, in the summer of 2018, picked it up and brought it home, having no idea what colour or colours to expect.

Now in their second summer of splendour, the plants have always borne identical colours, but I’m happy with that as there is something of the wow factor about them.

I call these poppies my Maastricht treats!

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Oriental poppies may be more in vogue, though they can often flop their foliage into an untidy – and sometimes gooey – mess.

The smooth, blue-green leaves of somniferum are deeply lobed and the stems themselves grow erect and often top 3ft-4ft, so staking may be needed in draughty spots.

As for varieties of somniferum, there’s the frilly-double blooms of Peony Flowered in pink, red, purple, maroon or white; Applegreen, a double pompon in palest green and a Thompson & Morgan exclusive; and White Cloud that’s also double-flowered.

Do bear in mind that overfeeding poppies may prove counter-productive, prompting more foliage than flowers, so treat ’em slightly meanly but do offer them bags of sunshine.

After gathering a handful of ripe pods, go find a rough piece of ground near your home and throw a handful or two of seed all over it. They may not all germinate but, boy, those that do survive will not only show off their coats of many colours but pack an almighty punch.

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Poppies on parade: From top – one of my “Maastricht poppies”; a mass of seeds poured out from just one pod; two flowers folding their petals at eventide; an outstanding photo – which I take no credit for – of a beautiful swordgrass caterpillar on a poppy capsule posted on Facebook at the weekend.

Two seasons merge to bring a colour cascade as we’ve never seen before

RHS Wisley 2020

GARDENS and green spaces across the UK are on the verge of a unique explosion of summer colour as the peak of two flowering seasons combine to create the most dramatic spectacle seen in years, says the UK’s leading gardening charity.

But the bad news is that the best of it could be over in just days.

The Royal Horticultural Society reports that this year’s weather has provided the optimum growing conditions for summer flowering. The warm, wet winter followed by the sunniest May on record and then a bout of rain in June has produced an exceptional crop of summer blooms.

Stronger, bigger buds and more prolific flowering has created abundant displays of early blooms such as lilies, rhododendrons, irises, roses and hydrangeas, and mid-summer flowers such as verbena, rudbeckia, heleniums and geraniums are now coming into their own.

The apex of this floral extravaganza may happen this weekend and at the four RHS Gardens the show has already begun, even though the seasonal overlap could pass by quickly as early summer flowers are likely to start going over next week.

At Rosemoor, near Torrington, Devon (pictured below and bottom) curator Jon Webster says fiery displays of red hot pokers, rudbeckia, dahlias and goldenrod are springing to life in the Hot Garden while whites, blues, pinks and purples bring a sense of calm in the Cool Garden. The two rose gardens are still brimming with colour and scent.

From gazebo Rosemoor 2014

Curator Paul Cook says that thanks to steady temperatures, no drought and enough rain,  Harlow Carr in Harrogate, Yorkshire, is currently producing prolific displays of a wide variety of summer flowers which “have never looked so good”.

Paul says: “Pink water lilies, white rhododendrons and pink, red and white roses are still going strong and at the same time there are masses of electric blue geraniums, yellow primulas and purple irises coming into flower. We also have 42 varieties of rudbeckia blooming right now creating a sea of vibrant reds, yellows and oranges.”

Wisley in Surrey (pictured above) is still teeming with big, blousy hydrangeas and the lavender is looking its best. Garden manager Peter Jones says: “There is so much to see. The prairie style Glasshouse Borders are singing with more flowers than I’ve seen in years with beautiful reds, pinks, purples and blues and in the South African meadow we are seeing the most brilliant spreads of kniphofia, the red hot poker.”

Rudbeckia, lavender and agapanthus are having an unusually abundant year at Hyde Hall in Essex and a three-metre tall Dasylirion wheeleri is flourishing in recent conditions providing a rare treat for visitors. The popular Floral Fantasia display has also returned this year and features thousands of colourful summer-flowering plants.

Ian Le Gros, head of Hyde Hall, says: “Although no season is ever the same, ideal levels of sunlight, warm evenings and a spot of rain has meant we have an unusually good year for flowering.”

RHS Partner Gardens are also reporting outstanding spreads of colour. The Bishop’s Palace Garden in Wells, Somerset, is awash with day lilies including Chicago Sunrise, blue salvias and their Bishop series dahlia collection is thriving. Garden manager James Cross says: “Everything has come together to produce the best summer colour I have ever seen.”

Guy Barter, RHS chief horticulturalist, explains: “It all started at the end of last year with good levels of light, enough rain and warm temperatures to produce strong plants coming into the year and these dreamy conditions continued when our sleeping perennials awoke to dry weather and moist soil.

Trees&ferns Rosemoor 2014

“A lack of frost and the light, warm start to the year meant growth was really good helping produce big bulbs and lots of them. The sunniest May on record was followed by an unusually wet start to the summer, with England seeing 43% more rainfall last month than the June average, according to the Met Office.

“This combination of weather phenomena saw the sunshine bring early summer flowers into bloom earlier, while the welcome extra rain has helped stretch their season over a longer period. And all this combined has created the best crop of herbaceous plants seen in years.”

For important information on rules and regulations, opening times and booking arrangements during Covid-19 do go to www.rhs.org.uk

What next! Millennials are out to prove they’ve got green fingers too

H&C veggies2

MAGNIFICENT millennials are on the march! Whatever we may say about the Covid lockdown, one thing cannot be disputed – it’s given us more hours to titivate our gardens than we could ever dream of.

Never has so much TLC been lavished on our beds, borders, tubs, baskets and veg plots. Those once free-running weeds simply haven’t stood a chance against the eagle-eyed home-bound gardeners.

Now, it seems, a new generation of flower and, in particular, veg lovers are all geared up to mow, sow and hoe into action. And, of course, grow!

Mail order Grow Your Own specialists D. T. Brown have been targeting younger gardeners with their biggest ever summer catalogue mailing, responding to a phenomenal 450 per cent rise in orders received from millennials while the nation has been ordered to Stay at Home, Stay Alert and Don’t Forget That Mask.

The company saw record demand for vegetable seeds and plants in May, with seed sales soaring by 580 per cent compared to normal.

H&C veggies1

Squeezing em in: Top and above –  A packed 8ft by 4ft frame of veggie varieties at a friend’s garden, with even space for a few California poppies. Below – D. T. Brown’s latest catalogue for mid-summer and autumn sowings and plantings.

Many of these customers were aged between 24 and 35 and live in urban or metropolitan areas, analysis has revealed.

The catalogue focuses on seed varieties that can be sown now and into the autumn, as well as a large range of nursery-grown veggie plants aimed at those with space and experience at a premium.

“With many new and possibly inexperienced gardeners embracing Grow Your Own, we wanted to encourage them to keep on sowing and keep on growing,” says DTB general manager Tim Jeffries.

“We’re delighted to welcome a younger generation of growers and hope that they’ll carry on embracing this wonderful and rewarding pastime.”

The 94-page catalogue is out now and contains more than 330 varieties of vegetable seed for summer and autumn sowing, veg and herb plants, fruit and autumn-planting onion sets and garlic.

Do remember – you don’t necessarily need copious amounts of space for growing vegetables. Intensive growing can work a treat, especially if you favour smaller veggies like root crops, brussels sprouts, lettuces, french beans and most of the herbs.

With some basic careful planning and planting you’ll be picking your own juicy legumes straight from the plot – however modest it is – and enjoying your very own creations at their freshest.

To request a copy of the catalogue go to www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk

DTBrown autumn 2020

 

 

Docton Mill: An idyllic oasis that wafts you back to a tranquil time

House&valley 2014

IF PEACE and solitude are your ideas of paradise, then Docton Mill comes as close to seventh heaven as is surely possible.

The sound of silence is deafening . . . well, not quite, for the trickling and gurgling of running stream water is never far from earshot.

Docton Mill is an idyllic nine-acre oasis in a surprisingly far-flung corner of north-west Devon, just inland from the famous waterfall at Spekes Mill Mouth and just a few miles from the little town of Hartland.

It’s so remote, in fact, that you sometimes wonder if the winding, single-track roads will ever lead you there!

Owners John and Lana Borrett are now in their 20th year as custodians of this magical haven where an endless assortment of plants flourish in both sun and shade.

Despite the hilly and sometimes slippery terrain and the eclectic mix of bog and dry-land plants, shrubs and trees, the gardens are kept in perfect shape, thanks to unstinting enthusiasm from John and Lana and their dedicated gardener Michelle from Bradworthy.

Over the past decade the Borretts have introduced more woodland paths and plantings, extended their herbaceous borders and created a lovely stream garden. Things seldom stand still at Docton; projects are invariably on the go!

John, a retired design engineer, once told me: “We feel lucky to be custodians of such a lovely part of North Devon.”

Those words suitably sum up all that is unforgettable about Docton Mill. Stand anywhere in the garden, close your eyes and open your ears – you’re sure to hear the symphony from streams, the gentle wisp of grasses and the woodland home to a bevy of songbirds.

This year, of course, The Virus delayed Docton Mill’s public openings until this month. In normal times, visitors can gaze at daffodils and hellebores in March, bluebells and rhododendrons in April and May, roses and herbaceous borders in June and a host of mid and late-summer colour in July and August.

Do keep an eye open for those cottagey favourites such as delphiniums, hollyhocks and lupins, as well as towering echiums, ligularias, hardy geraniums and many rare and uncommon species from around the globe.

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The candelabra primulas are a special joy in June, but their time is now over until next year.

After an hour or two of gentle wanderings, chances are you’ll be working up an appetite and heading for Lana’s award-winning team room . . . as I did!

Docton Mill is open until 5th October, 10am-5pm. Admission: Adults £4.50, seniors £4.25, children 16 and under free. www.doctonmill.co.uk / 01237 441369.

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Delightful Docton: Top – Docton Mill house in its lush valley; the rest of the images show John Borrett, water features and water lilies, campanula, hollyhocks, hydrangeas, inula and the giant leaves of gunnera.

Beware the Helminthotheca echioides: They can seriously be a pain in the garden

Nasty weed1

SUDDENLY they are everywhere. They drill through gaps in the concrete, they pop up at the edge of beds and borders, between house walls and pathways, they lurk beneath larger plants and shrubs and no sooner do you think you’ve purged the nasty blighters than they are back.

Is there no stopping this obnoxious and offensive weed? Seemingly not!

I’ve never encountered this thoroughly nasty beastie in the garden before. Yes, we get daisies, docks and dandelions, groundsel, nettles and clover and an assortment of little uns which do no harm and can easily be pulled out.

But this chap is something else! I even allowed one to grow to 2ft 6in maturity on a display bed where it certainly should not have been but only to see what the flowers looked like.

As expected, they were like small versions of the dandelion, but it’s the bristles – perhaps I should say prickles – right up the stems that can catch you out because they most definitely are not soft and harmless. Not as severe as thistles, but you know thistles are not to be tampered with, so you don’t go giving them the heave-ho unless you’re well protected around the hands.

Grab a stem of this newbie too tightly and you’ll withdraw with a grumpy “ouch” or something stronger!

So here’s introducing our latest “friend” – sorry, fiend – the Bristly Oxtongue, rejoicing in the scientific name Helminthotheca echioides.

Its most unusual feature are its pimply leaves, each pimple sending up one of those bristles. Indeed, this annual or biennial which enjoys being near the sea, is virtually prickly all over, providing it with a hand suit of armour should anyone dare try to yank it from its chosen spot.

Why Bristly Oxtongues have never shown up before in our garden is a mystery. Here’s an intriguing fact, though – in my indispensable handbook Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, reprinted in 2013, this thug is shown to be prevalent in large areas of East Anglia, London and neighbouring counties, the South Coast, the coasts of North and South Wales, South Devon, North and South Cornwall . . . yet here in North Devon is left blank on the map.

Until now, it seems.

The latest assumption is that seeds have been blowing our way, landed in gardens – and no doubt on waysides, in woods, fields and hedges – and are doing their darndest to colonise wherever they land.

So take heed and pull, rake or scour out these Helminthotheca echioides whenever you see them, for I wouldn’t even rate them a desirable wild plant.

But be warned: Within a day or two you’ll discover another dozen or three appearing as if by magic and determined to spread their unwelcome attributes in one of the last “safe” corners of Britain.

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Ban the Bristly! Top and above – two images of the Bristly Oxtongue in my garden, clearly showing the numerous spines on leaves and stems.

 

 

By ‘eck! Grow these sky-high stunners for a 3-year adventure in the garden

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FROM little acorns, says the catchphrase, mighty oaks will grow.

In Bill and Peach Shaw’s life, tiny seedlings that proliferate each year in their back garden by the score begin a spectacular journey of growth that sends them soaring to 14ft . . . or more.

These are echiums, blue-eyed high fliers of the gardening world, natives of the Canary Isles, darlings of the Isles of Scilly and equally at home in the less predictable climes of Northam, North Devon.

They’ve also proved expert fund-raisers for charity after the couple’s enterprising “Adopt an Echium” endeavour.

In three separate “doorstep giveaways” of baby Echium pininana seedlings, the public have donated a magnificent £680 for Appledore RNLI after snapping up an estimated 400 plantlets.

“It has been quite magical. We have been amazed by the response,” says Peach, who with her husband are gifted and highly-respected metal sculptors and doyens of the nearby Appledore Crafts Company.

Peach & echiums

“I love the fact that bees love the flowers. We call the plants “occasional trees” because our garden is so small – too small for normal trees.”

This species of echium – much admired by Peach when she was a gig racer for Appledore on the Scillies – are often known as triennial plants as their lifespan is spread across three years.

Year 1 – seedlings a few inches high; year 2 – a massive rosette of leaves; year 3 – the mature monster that sends up a stout trunk and explodes into a multitude of tiny pinky-blue blooms.

Doubtless, the growth rate is helped on its way by soil enriched by ancient blood and bone from an old abattoir the couple use for storage and from a nearby former butcher’s shop.

Now the bad news. This species of echium is monocarpic, so once it blooms the whole mighty structure dies.

A sad expiry date, maybe, but there’s a consolation prize with the arrival of numerous baby offspring, so that’s how you – and Peach and Bill – have kept up the momentum.

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Peach recalls: “Ever since we saw these strange, prehistoric plants back in the 1990s growing in random locations in the South West, we have wanted them in our garden. We bought a young echium plant from a tropical garden centre near Penzance which we grew on in a pot, but sadly had a disaster when we tried to straighten the stem by loosely tying it to a cane in the pot . . . and it died.”

Their next attempt was from seed, the packet, they think, from a newspaper offer. And that proved the start of something big.

Since then, nearly every year – apart from years when it snowed – the Shaws have had a magnificent display in their compact rear garden.

This year, though, was different, not only because of The Virus which enabled them to spend many more hours in the garden, but because they realised that instead of committing the seedlings to the compost pile people may enjoy “adopting” an echium for charity.

Peach adds with a smile: “At the last adoption session we caused a small traffic jam in Cross Street, Northam, as people arrived to pick up their seedlings.

Now, to all those who have taken plants home, Peach urges patience, for the flowers won’t be seen until 2022, followed by seedlings in 2023.

But the good news is that the bees will be kept happy when bloom time arrives and the local lifeboat station will be happy too.

So are still more seedlings popping up? The answer, it seems, is Yes. So keep your eyes peeled on the couple’s Facebook page and do your bit for the courageous crews on the high seas.

Echium seedlings

Weird echium Shaws

Echium adventure: From top – A “forest” of echiums in Bill and Peach Shaw’s garden;  Peach holds a trayful of baby plants ready for the doorstep; back to 2007 during the couple’s early flirtation with these monsters; a host of seedlings wait to be “adopted” on Saturday; and a possible plant mutation as a smaller stem bears a different shaped flower fountain.

 

Love or loathe ’em, hydrangeas are kings of the late summer spectacle

Hydrangeas Berrynarbor

THERE’S a dash of Marmite about hydrangeas. Many adore that flamboyant,  chintzy spectacle in pink, blue or white, not least local councils who plant them in suburban streets by the score.

Others simply don’t approve or will perhaps transfer their plant from pot to an arid, semi-soilless corner and forget about it.

They are a tough lot, though. So chances are your abandoned one will fight on and dare to show its colours the following year.

Colours? Like a chameleon, hydrangeas will turn from blue to pink on limy soil and from pink to blue if it’s acid underfoot. And all the while the whites stay, well, white as driven snow, with an occasional reddish tinge if left in full sun . . . rather like me when the heat’s on!

That brings me fittingly on to Brian and Anne Bailey’s magnificent and flourishing mophead hydrangeas lining the driveway of their home at Broad Meadow, Sterridge Valley, Berrynarbor in North Devon.

Hydrangeas Berrynarbor1

They were planted around 1975 and over the years the blooms have changed from pink to blue – and remained blue for a number of years.

Now, though, they are reverting back to pink without any special diet to induce this personality change, so maybe the soil pH is finely balanced – and let’s not forget that rainwater has a slightly acid pH of about 5.7 through a reaction with C02 in the atmosphere that forms carbonic acid.

The photos were snapped by North Devon naturalist and the Baileys’ family member Stewart Beer who – like any dedicated follower of nature – also discovered this supreme lacecap shrub sited a few miles away at the entrance to Hawthorn Road, Barnstaple.

“‘Consider the bloom, some look, some see’,  is a maxim that surely applies to this plant,” says Stewart poetically.

Though there are numerous species and varieties, hydrangeas fall into two distant groups, both originating Far Easterly in China and Japan.

The deciduous species macrophylla includes both sorts – the ubiquitous mopheads which are extremely showy but are perhaps elegance-challenged.

Lacecaps, by contrast, are the graceful alternatives with flat flowerheads made up of tiny blooms in the centre and larger florets – like those in the mops – around the rim.

Both types react to the acid-alkali colour change, both relish life by the coast, they prefer a part-shady home and both benefit from a light pruning in March, as long as you take care to leave the old flower heads in situ until you prune to protect the buds below from frost.

After four or five years your shrub will become more congested with twigs, so give the plant a good spring clean by completely cutting out a quarter of the stems.

Hydrangea Hawthorn Rd2

You may not be too bothered about different varieties, unless your intention is to vary the hues and statures.

A new lacecap, Runaway Bride Snow White (4ft) – what sort of handle is that? – won Chelsea Plant of the Year 2018, so must be worth noting.

There’s Glam Rock (3ft 6in), a mophead that starts vivid lime green in bud than changes to deep pink from the centre; tall Ayesha (5ft) looks rather like a lilac with delicately curled mopheaads and even a hint of scent; Merveille Sunshine (4ft), another mophead in deep red and, when grown in acid soil, blue eyes; and Selina, a 2007 lacecap debutante which is robust and perfect for hedging, complete with bronze foliage and conspicuous pinkish-red heads. Quite stocky at only 3ft.

With several new names in the tunnel and  more compact choices due for release soon, it’s just possible we could see something of a hydrangea renaissance.

Love ’em or screw up your face, what cannot be denied is the hydrangea’s dependability, durability and willingness to bloom its socks off. Just don’t let it get too dry around the ankles if you wish to stay friends!

Hydrangea Hawthorn Rd

▲ Happy hydrangeas: From top – two views of Brian and Anne Bailey’s beauties at Berrynarbor; a lacecap at Hawthorn Road; the magnificent “full Monty” in full bloom.