Making the most of summer in the garden

Will Giles, The Exotic Garden, Norwich
Monday, August 20, 2012
11:17 AM

It’s not Autumn just yet. Will Giles tries to enjoy his garden in the good weather before the cold and dark return once again

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Mid-August already, where has the year gone? I always think of this time of year as high summer although the evenings are pulling in fast. It is usually the warmest time of year day and night, though this year has been rather fickle to say the least, so let’s make the most of it while it’s still here and enjoy our gardens before the cold and dark days of winter return!

At the beginning of August I noticed the first Cyclamen coming into bloom in the xerophytic garden. I think Cyclamen hederafolium is an absolutely cracker of a little plant and one of the first heralds of autumn though I’m not going to allow myself to think about autumn yet! Cyclamen have such a long season of interest before they vanish back into the earth again in early summer the following year. The flowers can be pink or white or a mixture of both and sometimes delicately fragrant. The individual blooms look like little ballerina tutu skirts pirouetting gracefully on slender stalks amongst the taller planting. Here, they are all planted on raised beds about four feet off the ground, so I can lean on the flint cobble walls and appreciate their exquisite beauty close up.

The flowers of Cyclamen hederafolium often appear well before the leaves, which subsequently form a handsome carpet after the flowers have finished. The leaves are rounded, sometimes angular, and often attractively mottled. Although they are usually planted in shade, cyclamen originate from the Mediterranean region, so are equally happy in full sun. Mine are growing in both situations and do equally well. They look fabulous planted en masse in a woodland setting with ferns and other shade-tolerant plants or around the base of deciduous trees. I have masses planted under the canopy of the large bamboo Chusquea gigantea and also amongst cacti and silvery Mediterranean plants like ‘Curry plant’ Helichrysum italicum and ‘Wormwood’ Artemnisia. They were first planted here as seedlings around fifteen to twenty years ago and some of the dark brown corms are six inches and more across. They are very promiscuous plants and produce seed readily, which get scattered around the garden producing flowers after a few years, quickly forming colonies of delicate beauty.

For continuity I have planted quite a few late winter to early spring flowering Cyclamen coum which are equally beautiful, greatly extending the Cyclamen flowering season. The leaves have silver patterning over dark green, with the flowers appearing at the same time from the the underground tubers.

A completely different species of plant that hails from equally dry areas in Madeira the Canaries and Morocco are the Aeoniums. Towering Aeoniums and diminutive Cyclamen may seem incongruous but never-the-less work really well as they like similar growing conditions. Unfortunately, they are not hardy and have to be overwintered under cover, though I find this a small penalty to pay for such evocative and dramatic plants – they are definitely show stoppers that require little maintenance.

I grow them hard with only naturally available rain water (though there has been a dearth of the precious substance this year) and no food at all! In saying that though I visited a friend recently who fed his Aeoniums copiously, and as you can imagine, they can reach gargantuan proportions! Never-the-less, I do have some ridiculously large forms, with the biggest of these being is Aeonium undulatum, a true monster at 36ins tall with a 22inch heads of waxy, thick, very succulent, shiny green spatulate green leaves. Mine are several years old and will probably flower in the next year or two and when they do, massive Christmas tree-like candelabras of yellow flowers will be produced, though being monocarpic, they will die after flowering. I obtained them originally from Stephen Malster at Goose Green Nurseries in Beccles just over the border in Suffolk who grew them and many other fascinating forms from seed. He has also cross-pollinated various plants thus creating some interesting new hybrids, many of which can be found growing here at the Exotic Garden.

The most well know form has to be Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ an architectural marvel. (‘Zwartkop’ means black head) It is a woody stemmed perennial with short rather brittle branches and rosettes of dark purple glossy leaves with a small olive green eye, creating a very spectacular looking plant when a few years old. Atropurpureum’ has a similar glossiness, but more bronzy, purple leaves than ‘Zwartkop’. In recent years a variety called ‘Voodoo’ has become more readily available. It has magnificent, large evergreen rosettes of dark, reddish-purple flushed succulent foliage, with each leaf having a slight curl. This fabulous form was created by Jack Catlin in California by crossing A. undulatum with A. arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ - an Aeonium well worth seeking out as it makes a great centerpiece in the summer garden.

One of the prettiest has to be Aeonium decorum ‘Sunburst’ which has variegated cream, green and yellow leaves, forming small open rosettes on low branching stems. This seldom offered form develops pink leaf margins when grown in the sun.

An interesting form is Aeonium tabuliforme, a strange and wonderful stemless, ground hugging, rosette forming plant, looking more like a green fleshy dinner-plate! It is indigenous to rocky outcrops on the Canary Islands and can be found clinging to cliff faces. I recently obtained a cristate (or crested) form which is twisted into bizarre shapes and is more of an oddity than attractive. Of course there are many other forms worth collecting with names like ‘ Plum Pudding’ ‘ Mooncrest’ ‘ Kiwi’ and ‘ Mint Saucer’.

I was talking to a garden visitor last Sunday about collecting particular species or hybrids and why we do it? I certainly do find that certain families beckon you on to collect more of them, though this in the end could get rather silly, though there is definitely an allure to collecting certain plants. My currant fad is collecting Billbegia hybrids – I just love the colours!

Enough of this – I must now go and do some hands on gardening - enjoy your weekend and the balmy heights of glorious August.

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