Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Down the Primrose Path to the Polyanthus: A Little History of a Little Flower

by Lorraine Syratt ©2010

© Copyright Albert Bridge
licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons License.
In old England, farmhands and cottage gardeners often collected pretty flora and fauna from the wild to be planted out in their gardens. And the wild yellow primrose of England's mossy woodlands was no exception. The plants were so loved by the cottage gardeners, they took to breeding them, creating numerous varieties. By the 16th century, primroses were being produced with double flowers, thanks to the breeding done by those lowly cottagers.

As trade with other countries grew, so did the movement of plants. And some time in those early days, a pink primrose appeared from the faraway land of Turkey. It was known to early gardeners as "Turkie Purple." Until then, primroses were only bred in cream and yellow shades.

With the pink primula, breeders began to toy with crossing the plant with the cowslip and the result of this cross was the polyanthus. The polyanthus is available today world wide, and in numerous vivid colors and flowering types. It's a cheery plant that will add a bright spot to a dark corner of the garden.

The polyanthus is used to best effect in a woodland garden or a shady location, and is a perfect plant to line a shady path. It is a small plant, only growing to about 10" at most, and it grows best in a zone 4 garden or higher.
Photo by Sue Welsh

Good nurseries and nursery catalogs will have a variety of named polyanthus plants or seeds available. But an online search may reveal specialty nurseries that deal primarily in primroses and polyanthus or woodland plants in general. These specialty nurseries are valuable to gardeners who collect certain varieties of plants. The polyanthus is a plant worth collecting for its range in color variations – a sparkling flower in the garden, even on a dreary day. And it's a beautiful, albeit less-than-subtle choice for growing en masse in a romantic woodland garden or adding even more color to the cottage garden.

To learn how to grow and care for primula and polyanthus, good reference articles are found at  The Garden Helper and the UK site, Countryside Helper. It is illegal these days to remove or transplant primula from the wild in the United Kingdom.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Three Weeping and Cascading Plants for the Romantic Garden

by Lorraine Syratt ©2009

Some roses, vines, and even shrubs will weep and cascade over lawns, flower beds and arbors. The effect from only one or two plants with this growing attribute can be beautiful in the romantic or cottage garden adding a sense of movement to the design.

Wisteria at Grey's Court, Henley, Oxon.
© Copyright Nick Macneill
licensed under this Creative Commons Licence

A less than hardy weeping and cascading plant might include the fragrant vine, wisteria. The large flower racemes have the appearance of grapes on the vine. This plant needs a very strong support. The gardener will need a little patience – waiting a few years before the first flowers appear. Wisteria is traditionally grown on strong arbors, or  supports around a door entrance. It grows best in garden zone 6 or higher.

Laburnum tunnel, Hill House
© Copyright Derek Harper
licensed under this Creative Commons Licence.

Laburnum Walks

Another zone 6 cascading plant is the tree-like shrub, laburnum. This shrub has long pinnacles of yellow flowers in spring. It is a common addition to English gardens, often used in design to create a traditional laburnum walk. The laburnum walk is a long path under an arbor tunnel with laburnum planted near the base of each supporting post. As the visitor passes through the tunnel, her only vision is that of the yellow flowers of the plant weeping through the overhanging posts that cross the path. Wisteria can also be used in this manner. It's a stunning effect.

As beautiful as this plant is, it's also poisonous if ingested. The Poison Garden has a terrific article on the harmful nature of this plant. It should be planted with consideration.

William Baffin Rose Photo © Copyright Lorraine Syratt
Climbing and Rambling Roses

Most roses known as climbers and ramblers will cascade if not tied to their supports too strictly. For the cascade and weeping appearance, it may only be a case of letting the upper canes and some of the side-shoots fall loosely without being tied in. One of my favorites yet to be planted includes Blush Rambler ... so pretty. A climbing rose like the Explorer rose, William Baffin, is easily left as a stand-alone rose in the lawn without any support whatsoever. The upper canes will weep and cascade over the lower canes creating a large mass of deep pink flowers, as wide and as  tall the long canes will grow. I've seen this in a southern Ontario town and it looked like a small flowering tree about 15' tall and wide. Wish I took a picture.

The list of climbing roses is long, and the plants themselves are easily found in online rose catalogs. Rambling Roses for the Romantic Garden will offer more information.

 There are many choices in weeping and cascading plants, and it isn't difficult to find only one or two plants that will work for the gardener's location, adding a little garden romance to the landscape.

Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Grow Ferns in Your Woodland Garden

by Lorraine Syratt ©2010

In the 19th century,  ferns were extremely popular as indoor plants, often holding a place of honor in the conservatory. But they were also popular in the woodland garden, and that popularity has returned. Anyone can grow ferns as long as the plants are given a good start.

Fern Dell at Brodsworth Hall, UK
© Copyright Richard Croft
and licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons License.
Hardy garden ferns require a cool, rich humus for soil. They need a moist, but well-drained location. Like most garden plants, ferns don't like their roots sitting in water, so to attain a consistent moisture level in the soil, consider adding leaf-mold, well-rotted manure, and peat moss. These materials break down nicely in the soil to turn it into a rich humus that will retain the moisture level necessary for ferns to do well. If the soil is heavy clay, it may not drain well, so the addition of sand may help.

Ferns prefer dappled shade rather than the deep shade found directly beneath trees. And it's unwise to plant ferns along the drip line of tree branches. These areas may get too wet and may not drain fast enough. For the same reason, planting ferns against the wall of a house or shed is undesirable.
Ferns photo © Copyright Dannie Calder
licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons License.
Ferns are best planted when they are dormant in early spring or late fall. If transplanting native ferns or transplanting ferns from one part of the garden to another, dig them up carefully, keeping as much soil around the root ball as possible. This is most important with the evergreen varieties. Place the transplant at the same planting level where it was before moving it. Ferns can be difficult to transplant, but careful digging and re-planting will ensure good results. A little sprinkling of bone-meal over the top of the soil after planting will give the ferns a good fresh start.                                                                                  

A fern's distinctive fronds make it an excellent choice to add interesting fauna to a semi-shady flower border. The fronds also add contrast to an indoor flower arrangement – perfect for a cutting garden.

Once settled in the ground, ferns don't require a lot of fuss and bother. But like all plants, they need a healthy beginning in a soil suitable to its needs.

And for further reading, some books ...


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Creating a Woodland Garden: Romantic Gardening in Forests

If you are blessed with a woodland, or even a stand of trees in  space large enough to be called a wooded area, you have an opportunity to make that area of the garden into something verging on romanticism ... a woodland garden. But it does take some work.

Forest Floor Preparation

The floor of the woodland garden should be tidied up and cleared of noxious weeds, prickly hawthorn and anything else that offers little in the way of preservation or visual appeal. Keep fallen tree trunks and let them gather lichen. They could become homes for little forest creatures. Keep or grow ferns in your woodland garden. Add similar plants that might spread and grow naturally in the woodland. The ground beneath the tree canopy doesn't have to be perfectly manicured. The goal is simply to open up the space a little.

 A Woodland Walk
           © Copyright Ann Cook and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License                  

Follow the local bi-laws or methods for the removal of garden debris from your property. Burning, of course, is not advisable anywhere today. 

Woodland Path

Make a winding path through the woodland. This path will have to be cleared of vegetation, but with a winding path, it's easy to work around that. Add a bench at the midway point. It could be anything from a Victorian twig bench to a traditional park bench. The bench offers the visitor a place to sit, listen to the noises in the woodland and simply commune with nature.

Woodland Plants: Choosing and Placing

The next step in creating a woodland garden is to bring in more plant material to add a little color to the forest floor. Plants that thrive in shade or even dappled shade are best, but it's also important to place those plants so they appear natural in the environment. In other words, using a huge number of different varieties of plants won't look natural. A better understated plan is to pick only a few varieties of plants and plant them in large groups. And better still, choose plants that spread on their own and allow them to do as they please, spreading naturally, offering drifts of color and interest.

A Woodland Walk at Powis Castle, Great Britain
© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

In early spring, the forest floor is more open to the sun as the leaves have not yet unfurled on the trees. With that in mind, areas of the forest floor could be a mass of  scilla, tulips or bluebells, all of which will do well in this dappled sunshine. Encourage wild violets to spread to help create a flowery mead among the trees. For the summer months, flowering hostas, astilbe, primroses, foxgloves are among the numerous shade-tolerant perennials from which to choose.

The woodland garden is  a place for quiet walks and contemplation, unsullied by the bright visuals of mixed borders and rose arbors. It's appeal is the natural environment itself.

 A More Stylized Woodland Garden
© Copyright Trevor Rickard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Now that winter has shed her thick layers of white woolies here along Lake Ontario's northern border, the tulips are tuliping and the crocus is ... well ... croaking (they'll be finished soon). In my garden, the lilacs' leaves are starting to plump out and the tree canopy in the western forest is changing its hue with each passing day. I love the frenzy of spring, the urgency of it, everything happening so quickly.

Now I can see the garden again. Still brown and skeletal, but also green with promise, like the irises pushing desperately out of the soil.  Here, April's a good time to transplant perennials and roses, before they show signs of growth or coming out of dormancy. I do a lot of transplanting in April, never satisfied with the previous season's show and I have the winter to consider all the possibilities for the following growing season. We get black flies in this neck of the woods, so it puts garden work on the back burner from about  late April to mid-May most years. For me, the earlier I get into the garden, the better. For the most part, it's raking and removing winter's die-back.

Later in May, the garden is full of color and scent. The lilacs will be in full bloom, along with all the other spring shrubs and flowers. And it's also a great time to visit a lilac festival.

Right now I look out over bare branches. It's almost hard to believe that in just a few weeks, the garden will be awake and fully dressed for the cotillion.

And soon ... the iris.
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