Thursday 18 July 2013

In praise of... Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'

After posting a photo of Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer' for #WordlessWednesday this week, I got to thinking about what a great plant this perennial is, and decided to extol it's virtues.

I've been growing this Helenium for a number of years. In fact my current plants are great-grand children of the original plant I purchased about 8-9 years ago, as one of it's many virtues is that it bulks up quickly and is easily divide and replant so you have more plants.

Easy to grow
It likes full sun, but can grow in an East, West or South facing aspect. I've actually grown mine in both full sun, and part-shade, where it might only get 3 or so hours of direct sun and then several hours of dappled shade. Instructions usually say it likes well-drained soil, however, I've had no problem growing it in heavy clay, I just add compost at the initial planting. It appears to be fully hardy, having survived up to -20 in my garden over the last few winters.

The RHS says it should have support for best results, but I've never every used support for this plant, it has always supported itself and provided wonderful results.

It needs very little attention apart from deadheading. Do this and it will just keep flowering its socks off. Helenium's are easy to propagate via division (see bulking up below). Once hit by frosts the stems will go black. Cut these back to the base (usually there will be some leaves still showing), add a bit of compost to mulch and leave; they will come up again next year.

Long flowering period
This helenium gets full points for a really long flowering period. In my experience, it usually it flowers from June until first, even second frosts. Most years it has flowered from June to November or early December. In 2011 I noted on my blog that it was still flowering on 28th December.

So with a little dead-heading, you get beautiful flowers for months and months and months.

Great for cut flowers
Another way to enjoy this plant is as a cut flower. As it has strong long stems with multiple flowers, it stands up well in a vase and will continue to flower for up to 10 days. Taking cuttings also encourages the plant to send up more shoots and flowers, so you can pick it for cut flowers several times over the season. I've given bunches of Helenium Sahin's Early Flowerer to many friends and colleagues over the years and it is always greeted with great pleasure. Friends have reported not just how long it kept flowering once they got it home, but also asked, "how do we get hold of this plant?"

Bulks up quickly for division/propagation
Which leads me onto another virtue, its bulking up qualities. Within a couple of years of having planted the original plant, it had bulked up, that is, increased its roots and the amount of stems it sends up year on year, sometimes doubling each year I have found. It is worth dividing your perennials as this helps promote health and vigour in the plants, and is a great way of getting more plants for free. From here you can pot them up and pass them on to those eager friends, or immediately plant them straight out into your own garden or allotment to enjoy a larger collection that will continue to flower for years.

For more information on dividing perennials, see this section on the RHS website, including a great short video (only 48 seconds) that shows you what to do.

Attractive to bees and hoverflies
I have found that bees and hoverflies love this plant and are usually buzzing around it when I'm walking past. They wouldn't hang out at a plant that didn't feed them!

In conclusion...
The only 'negative' of this plant is that it has no fragrance. However, I think all the virtues listed above well and truly make up for this small omission. Its burst of colour, long flowering period and ease of growing and division, make this a plant well worthy of praise. What do you think?

Thursday 11 July 2013

Problem: growing vegetables on acid soil. Solution: raised beds

Along with recently setting up my first perennial beds, I have now also got my first vegetable raised bed growing.

first vegetable bed

I did a soil test early on, and found out two key things. One: the soil is incredibly heavy clay. The kind of clay I'm guessing Whichford Pottery might be able to use for their pots! Incredibly heavy, red-like clay (perhaps iron in it?) that is hard to stick a stake into, let along for a poor plant to try and get it's roots into.

Two: the soil is quite acidic in parts (some parts less than others). This is largely fine for most hardy perennials, most of which can tolerate a broader set of soil conditions (I did add a lot of compost to the perennial beds though, for nutrients and to improve the growing conditions). But acid soil is not much good for most vegetables as they need alkaline soil in which to grow.

This information led me to decide to dig up the grass and top soil*, about a couple of inches, and to build on this with deeper raised beds than I have previously (30cms tall rather than 15cms). By creating deeper beds, it would extend what I can grow within them, including more deep rooting vegetables like carrots, parsnips and potatoes, as well as more shallow rooting vegetables like lettuce and spinach**.

*You would normally keep your top soil, but as mine was just acidic heavy clay, compacted and weedy, it would have been almost useless to use for growing vegetables. Plus, a lot of work trying to separate weed from clay - just not worth the time/effort.

**Though spinach can send down some deep roots, I have discovered in the past when pulling out the old bolted crop at my previous lottie. 60cms or longer roots - impressive.

30cms deep raised bed, using a double row of link-a-bords.

This first bed now contains a mix of vegetable seedlings, including carrots, pak choi and winter cabbage, along with tomato and climbing French bean plants, basil & coriander. I chose a shorter variety of carrot, D'Eysines from Real Seeds rather than a longer variety that might end up growing into the acid soil.

D'Eysines Carrot seedlings. Sticks to protect young seedlings
from cats digging!

I had a bunch of coriander seedlings I had grown in pots and decided to plant them out around the edge of the bed, particularly next to the carrots. I just thought this might help deter carrot fly. I've not read this anywhere, rather I just had a theory that coriander has a strong fragrance and that it might be worth trying as a deterrent for carrot fly. Let's see what happens.

Pak Choi 'Canton Dwarf' seedlings

I got the Pak Choi seeds from my Seedy Penpal this year, Linda. It's the right time of year to sow Pak Choi, after midsummer, so glad I got to make use of the free seeds. Looking forward to stir fry...

I have two more double raised beds to build over the coming few weeks. I want to get some more seeds sown, like kale, spinach and chard, so I have something to harvest in Winter and early Spring.

I'm having to do this all a bit more slowly than I would like due to health issues (I have ME), but that's ok. I've finally got my first vegetables growing, despite moving into a new garden with acid soil only 3.5 months ago, and I'm pretty pleased with that.

If you are interested in growing using raised beds, do read VP's latest blog: I heart raised beds. It gives a very good overview for other reasons (besides acid soil) that growing vegetables on raised beds is definitely worth a try.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Exploring the Peak District: Hallam & Burbage Moors

The Peak District is very close to Sheffield, in fact so close parts of Sheffield are in the Peak District. We haven't had much of a chance to visit since moving to Sheffield at the end of March, so with our Oxford friend Manishta visiting last weekend, it seemed a good excuse for Kevin and I to hire a car and take her on a trip to the Peak District. 

Hallam Moor was a 'lake' of cotton grass, Eriophorum angustifolium, and with high winds at times it felt like it was snowing cotton grass! We also took a short walk up Higger Tor, which is on Burbage Moor, just over from Hallam Moor. From cotton grass to beautiful rock formations, we enjoyed our visit to this part of the Peak. Note to self: visit Peak District more often. Beautiful.

Cotton grass over the Peak, looking towards Cowper Stone (Hallam Moor)

Cotton grass up close

Kevin and Manishta on top of Higger Tor (Burbage Moor)

Rock formations, Higger Tor

Manishta, Kevin & I, with Burbage Rocks (ridge)
and big sky in background

Monday 1 July 2013

The Alpine Plant Centre and my experimental alpine wall

On the weekend I had the opportunity to visit The Alpine Plant Centre, which is in the Hope Valley in the Peak District. Sadly the garden itself (above) wasn't open. I missed the NGS open days and must make sure  I make it next year. However the nursery was, and I picked up quite a few alpines.

I was so excited by the nursery that I forgot to photograph it. It is just what one wants in a specialist nursery. A large variety of plants, way beyond what you will ever find in a normal garden centre, well labelled and of high quality. They sell a large variety of alpines, including rockery plants, tufa plants, saxifrages, sempervivums, sedums, primulas, gentians and even troughs are available.

I was also very impressed by the prices, most going for £1.50 - £2, much cheaper than alpines in normal garden centres which are more likely to be around £3-4. Of course, the lower prices mean you feel encouraged to put more in your basket! They even made it easy shopping, by lining the baskets with trays to make sure your precious cargo didn't fall over.

I don't have the usual alpine trough to grow my alpines in. Rather, I have an ex-wall on which I am going to experiment. Apparently this was a normal 6ft brick wall which the previous owners reduced when putting in the garage. What remains is this (our garage to the right):

As you can see, the brick has lots of hole in them, and this led me to wonder if I could try and turn this not-most-attractive feature into a flowering wall? I tried experimenting a few weeks ago with some sempervivum cuttings and one of the two is definitely doing well.

Many alpines grow in high remote places with weather temperature extremes. Many can survive and thrive with very little soil. I've seen amazing specimens growing out of cracks in rocks. My wall is a mix of bright sun and shade and can be very windy. So I thought I'd have a go a trying a range of alpines in the holey brick wall and see what takes.

So the plants that I chose for this experiment includes: Sisyrinchium biscutella and bermudiana, Saxifraga x urbium primuloides (dwarf London Pride, Dactylorhiza fuchsii (Common spotted orchid), Sempervivum topaz, Sedum Betram Anderson and Campanula poscharskyana.

Obviously it would be better if I was planting these in spring, or even autumn, but given out no-so-hot summer, I figure it's worth a try. Let's see what happens.