MY CLEMATIS DIARY
It's April Fool's Day in the UK. What makes fools of us all in the gardening world, of course, are weeds. The more we manure and fertilise our soils the more the weeds like it! I can see a nice crop of weeds coming up in all my beds and so I am methodically getting down to them. I find that a hoe takes care of many of the weeds. Where I have to do meticulous weeding, on hands and knees, then I have developed a system whereby I do not throw the weeds away. I pluck each weed out of the ground, shake it so as to get rid of any soil on the roots, turn it upside down and place it back on the soil. Any subsequent weeds are put on this until a little pile develops. This, in time, will rot back down into the soil. So in this fashion I am not taking nutriment out of the soil but, in effect, producing green manure. Hoeing, of course, also returns the weeds to the soil.
Today I have been starting on one of the big tasks in my garden. I have 100 or so viticella clematis that have to be lifted over a holly hedge so that they flower on the other side. They are now about to start their journey. Most of them are 3-4-5-6 feet long. Depending on their length, I choose a cane of that length or rather longer. The cane is pointed to the top of the holly hedge. The clematis is neatly tied to this with green string. They will now climb up the cane until they reach the top of the hedge. Here they will hesitate and want to come back into the garden. It is at this point that I have to intervene and gently push them down onto the other side.
Each year, in my weeding, I come across young shoots of blackberry (rubus). The birds eat the berries in the autumn and digest them while sitting on the supports of your clematis. The seed passes right through the bird, is nicely manured, and down it goes into the soil to produce a plant. If left they can make a large plant! Fortunately the roots are quite superficial and if you tug at the plant with a gloved hand it usually comes away. If not then a spade quickly deals with it.
One weed that really enjoys good feeding, and its presence indicates a good soil, is the nettle. Once they colanise your soil they put out suckers just below the surface of the ground and from these suckers more nettles pop up. Thus when one deals with the nettle one must take account of these suckers. Look for them and remove them. Quite often the whole colony of nettles will be linked by suckers. It is not difficult to remove as the suckers as they are just below the ground and come away quite easily. Of course there are some people who want to preserve nettles. They may want the nettles for their nettle soup. Or again, they are very useful for attracting butterflies.
If one has clematis in beds, as I do, then sooner or later one has to deal with tidying the edges of the beds. If the edge is that of lawn grass then I have a simple three-part technique for this. Firstly, with a sharp spade or edging tool, you cut the line on the lawn edge as you want it. Sometimes it might be necessary to use a line but with a little practice one can do it quite well with one's eye, stepping away now and then to look at the edge from a distance. Put the spade in a good six inches. Secondly, you now use your spade or edging tool at right angles to the line you have made. You cut into the edge of the lawn every six inches or so, again going down a good six inches. You need not worry about the cut coming into the lawn because that will correct itself extremely quickly. Thirdly, with a fork you lift up the six-inch pieces along the new edge of the bed you have now made. With a small light fork they can be quickly lifted in a wheelbarrow and either go into the compost heap or to make a lawn edge somewhere else.
Working in one of the beds today I was conscious of two robins nearby. To my surprise I saw two small birds that looked like robins a short distance away. This surprised me because robins are territorial birds and wouldn't allow another pair of birds into their territory. So I looked closely at the two intruders and found they were not robins but finches. I settled down to a chat with the robins. At first the sounds they make are simply a warning to you to leave their territory. However, if at first you stand still and talk to them, they will then accept you as desirable inmates of their territory. Standing still is important. Any motion can be interpreted as a threat and they move away. I not only talk to them but whistle a little song, by courtesy of Mozart.
Cutting logs doesn't seem to have any link with growing clematis but, indirectly, it does. My aim is always to get the log cutting done in the winter so that I am free to devote the whole of the growing season to clematis. This last winter we seem to have had an extra push for logs for the two grates that we keep going. With central heating, open grates are not strictly necessary but we like the life the fire gives to a room, the ever increasing interest as it crackles and, of course, the scent of the wood. So we had to finish our logging today. Then came the sawing of pieces to the required size for the grates.
Living in an old house in England, you have to accept that you share the house with a number of creatures. When we bought the house we were warned by the previous owners that windows must not be opened until late April, because up until that time the ladybirds would be nesting in the window frames. It was essential to keep them in good health because they ate the aphids off the roses and, indeed, off the clematis. We were warned, too, to look after the bats. There was one large variety of bat, with long ears, which lived in a particular attic room which must be kept free of any activity for their welfare. All around the place are the small bats. They could be found anywhere behind an object in the winter - hibernating. They must not be disturbed and the object must be immediately put back should you find a bat behind it.
The rats move into the house in November as it gets colder. You can hear them in the evening climbing up the walls until they make their way up to the attic. In the spring the swallows and the swifts must be accommodated. One side of the house was taken over almost completely by the starlings. They don't seem to come anymore. Maybe they have abandoned this part of England. And then the most special animal in the place is a particular mouse said only to be found here. It has a yellow ruff round its neck. Which brings me to the point of my remarks. These mice have moved in through a little hole in the bedroom and got into my wife's chest of drawers. They gone off with wool from over 25 garments! So all the little nests around here must be carefully insulated with wool to keep the coming offspring warm. Do you live and let live - or do you take action? My wife has taken action!
Today I had to prepare an article for Garden News on clematis with red flowers. At first I thought of the large flowered clematis, but then remembered that the small flowered clematis have some fine glowing reds. Perhaps the best group for red in the small flowered are the Texensis Group. Not just plain red but reds of many shades. I remembered, too, that one of the first flowers in the spring is C. alpina 'Constance' - a fine red. The year ends with a red fringe. By that I mean that 'Triternata Rubromarginata' has a fine red edge to its tiny tepals. Which is the best of all the reds? I thought that 'Niobe' would be high up in the rankings.
You have hear the adage "too much kindness can kill". This is probably referring to the fact that the overprotection of children in their upbringing can make them unable to cope for themselves later in life. But it certainly applies to clematis. Over kindness can come from over fertilising. One can certainly kill plants by giving them too much fertiliser. A good rule is "weak and often". One must particularly protect the crown of the clematis plant. Nothing should be put within a foot of this whether it be a chemical fertiliser or a natural fertiliser.
Today I visited a clematis nursery and had the privilege of seeing what goes on behind the scenes. It really makes the point that producing clematis for sale is very hard work. Once the clematis have flowered cuttings are taken. Some clematis can be difficult to propagate. After careful work the resulting cuttings that have taken are potted up into small pots. This is during the first year. These in the trade are called "liners". Sometimes they are sold to the public at this stage. However, anyone buying such a clematis must pot it up into a larger pot and keep it for at least a year before putting it in the garden. During the second year at the nursery the liners are potted up into 2 litre pots and become, in due course, the clematis that we see in most sales areas. Quite frequently they are kept through a second winter because nowadays the popular time for buying and planting clematis is the spring. This is the production side of the business. A vital aspect of production is to keep all parts of the nursery clean and hygienic and thus prevent the spread of infections all too ready to show themselves and to do great damage. Then comes the sales part of the business, starting with producing a catalogue. Mail orders have to be dealt with. Buyers visit the nursery and expect to find the sales area full of clematis in flower and, hopefully, a display garden where the clematis can be seen in flower. To stimulate sales nurseries often have to participate with a display at a show or shows. Then every opportunity has to be taken to show the clematis at events where purchases can be made. It's all a very exacting and time consuming business. Inevitably the clematis becomes an expensive flower to buy. Despite this, rewards to the nursery are not great. It helps all for the gardener to understand what has happened to the clematis before he buys it.
I toured some of my large flowered clematis today to see how they are doing. In general they are doing quite well but as usual I noticed that some had not yet appeared. Will they ever appear? Some probably won't. There are a few losses every winter. However it is always important to remember that clematis have a habit of not appearing the first year and popping up the second year, or maybe even the third year. Thus I leave that area untouched for at least two years, giving the clematis every opportunity to show itself.
Today I went round my montanas and before long they should be in flower. I noticed that a few of them, where a branch had touched the ground, had made layers. These branches I cut off the main plant. I found the roots at the nodes and from that made a very good cutting which was potted up! This seems like a good way of increasing one's stock of montanas.
My montanas, or most of them, are on special posts which I have constructed for them, The Hill House Montana Support. This is because I have run out of trees for supporting my montanas. The support is made from a 12ft post. It is important to sink at least 3ft into the ground because when the winds strike there is going to be tremendous pressure on the post when you imagine a montana strung out over the remaining 9 feet. At intervals of 18 inches there is a cross piece made of slats 2 inches wide and 3ft long. The montanas quickly climb up the posts and entwine themselves in the cross pieces. Here and there I give a little judicial help by tying them in with string. Far from being unsightly they add to the architecture of the garden. They look particularly good in shrubberies.
The key to knowing and understanding clematis is to think of them in terms of groups. When I researched this area, some years ago, I found all clematis fell neatly into 12 groups. Each group succeeding the other through the year. The first group, the Evergreen Group is now nearly over. The Cirrhosas are now out of bloom. The Armandii's are almost finished, there have been some spectacular examples in this vicinity this year. 'Snowdrift' in particular had overwhelming scent. The next group to come are the Alpinas followed by the Macropetalas. Both those groups are now in bloom.
A particularly good example of macropetala in flower at the moment is one named by Jim Fisk and introduced by him. Indeed this was Jim's last introduction. His village is called Westleton. However, Jim has decided to call the macropetala after the old name of the village. This is Wessleton. Jim is perfectly correct to use whatever spelling he likes. However I can imagine that some people are going to be a little bewildered.
Another macropetala in bloom with me at the moment is one raised here and called after my wife 'Ola Howells'. This is a blue-purple coloured clematis. The outer and the inner rings have slightly different shades making an attractive effect. It's a robust plant. I will say no more!
The first of the montanas has shown itself in bloom! This is 'Graciliflolia'. It is related to the montanas and is the first to flower. The flowers are small but come in abundance. At first creamy-white, they fade to white. It has particularly attractive leaves. A plant well worth growing. Who will be next in the montanas? 'Freda' is showing signs of having flowers very shortly.
Today I planted the Clematis 'Vostok' into the garden. As usual, once having planted it I had to surround it with a circle of wire mesh up to a height of 2 feet. The mesh keeps rabbits out. It also keeps pheasants out. They can stand up on their legs and push their necks forward. So while they can nip at the edge of the circle, they can't do more than that. But, of course, it will not prevent the peacocks putting in their long necks. Nothing prevents them.
Rabbits are very ingenious creatures. If one rabbit solves a problem by finding its way into your garden then all the other rabbits will follow. I have heard it said also that they can be remarkably agile. Someone told me they had seen a rabbit, chased by dogs, jump over a five-bar gate! Certainly, if they can jump up and land on a flat surface then they can jump 5 feet. My garden is completely surrounded by a wire fence which is supposed to be rabbit proof. In most places it goes up to 6 feet. It is buried into the ground for a distance of 1 foot. So therefore there is no way that the rabbits should get into my garden. But they still did. Waking one night and looking through the window, there was a rabbit eating the grass of the lawn just below the window. I got up specially the next night just to see if it was there. There were two! The next night there were five. They were clearly getting in somewhere. Harry and I went round the perimeter again and again. We could find no hole anywhere. No possibility of a rabbit getting in. But they still got in. We went again. Then I noticed a little trail up to the fence. The trail ended at a post and the rabbits clearly climbed up the wire on the post. The post, of course, makes the wire steady. Having got to the top of the post, there the rabbit found another post, inside the garden, going at a 45 degree angle down to the soil. So they simply clambered down the post to the ground. In reverse, they climbed up the 45 degree post, got to the top and then jumped down. It was possible to solve the problem by simply having an extra piece of wire at the top, jutting out at right angles. The rabbits were seen no more.
The danger of rabbits are the little ones, just after they are born. I noticed the other day the first brood is upon us. The mature rabbits find it unwise to go too close to buildings. Not so the youngsters. They can wriggle through a gate and ultimately get into your garden. Once in the garden they grow and become a big rabbit. Doing steady damage all the time. Once inside, however, they are not free of danger. Every animal has its predator. In the case of the rabbit it can be a cat. A neighbour's black and white cat is a great hunter of rabbits. Then there are the foxes that come through every night, it is so much easier to catch a rabbit in an enclosed garden than in a woodland. Having a garden in the country means that you have to adjust to the local wildlife. It adds greatly to the interest of the garden if you can do this. One must be able to tolerate the odd rabbit or the odd pheasant or, maybe for three minutes, the odd peacock. Occasional visits to the garden are wild cats. It is not clear where these animals come from. Maybe they just get lost in the countryside or maybe they have been discarded by people. They are usually very aggressive and very fearful. However, one can tame them. The technique is to sit still and put food some distance away. When the cat approaches the food you can start talking to it but don't move. Each day you bring the food closer. Always remaining still and always talking. Ultimately the cat will come right up to you and even accept food from you. Any rapid move on your part will set the cat scuttling away.
These cats are not the native wildcat which can be seen in remote parts of the country. I remember seeing some of our native cats in a quiet area of Cornwall.
I have referred earlier to the fact that clematis can sometimes disappear for a year or two and then come back again. Going around my plants the other day I was delighted to see that 'Miss Bateman' has returned. She disappeared from that spot two years ago. Now she is back and it looks like being a strong plant. It is like the Biblical return of the prodigal son. They are greatly cherished because of the joy of the unexpected.
You've heard the adage "where there's muck there is money". I think this saying comes from Yorkshire, UK. Businesses can flourish if they concentrate on the job in hand rather than in over-tidiness. I have an area of garden which is overgrown. This refers to my Clematis 'Tetrose', a particularly floriferous and colourful montana. I let it be rampant because it grows over the figure of a charming little girl that I have in the garden. I let the clematis grow over her because otherwise she might be cold in winter. Now we come to the gold. Surveying the scene today I noticed that some of the overgrown branches of the 'Tetrose' had gone into the ground and layered themselves. So I came away with six really strong layers together with another six that may also take. So one can be over-tidy in the garden. Also, of course, if you hoe everything green that you see you may be hoeing up interesting clematis seedlings.
It is another day when we have had to spend considerable time helping the viticella clematis to get over the holly hedge. They're on their way but they still need help. More canes have had to be put in. The clematis are now bunching up so it is possible to tie them to the cane with a piece of string. If, however, only one long branch of clematis is available then I tie that to the cane with a tie. The clematis that follow will probably climb up that existing branch of the clematis. Clematis, of course, has a tendency to do this. Failing support they cling to one another.
Beware of new introductions of clematis. Sometimes clematis come out with a fanfare and a great deal of publicity. But clematis that look good at a show or in a nursery tunnel are not necessarily good in a garden. Thus it is best to buy clematis that are well tried. The Royal Horticultural Society in the UK, awards certificates called Award of Garden Merit. They are certifying that the clematis are garden worthy. This is what the gardener wants.
Today, quite a number of new clematis that come on the market are protected by Plant Breeder's Rights. This is a reasonable development. Producing new clematis can cost a great deal of money. Therefore it is reasonable that the raiser has a return from others. The breeder gets a royalty on all the clematis sold of that variety. The breeder does not seek these rights unless he is reasonably happy that it is going to be a winner. This is because there is a considerable cost in obtaining the Rights. However the raiser's expectations are not always fulfilled. Being garden worthy is a different matter from being nursery worthy. 'Arctic Queen', I think, is a fine new introduction. Not only giving double blooms in the spring but also in the autumn. However, my experience with 'Josephine' has not been so rewarding for instance.
I was helping my wife today to plant some shrubs into containers for the patio. We took care to mix some soil with the compost. Compost on its own can dry out very quickly in the sun on a patio. Adding soil can help to prevent this. We took particular care also to make sure there was good drainage from the bottom of the pot. Nothing kills container plants more frequently than lack of drainage.
I have just sought out my Bio-Glyphosate spray. This is a systemic weed killer that works through the roots of weeds. I have found it very effective with intransigent weeds. It is particularly useful against weeds that have long roots in the soil. I also use it against couch grass which can be difficult to eradicate. Working among plants, I carry a piece of stiff cardboard with me about a foot square. Using the card I can prevent the spray hitting any of the cherished plants.
There is talk that the government may ban this very useful chemical for weed control. Of course, these chemicals do carry dangers. However, having warned the user of the dangers then there seems to be no reason for banning the chemical. If the user mistreats his use of the chemical then he may suffer. But if the motorist mistreats the use of his car, as many people do every day, killing themselves and even maiming others, we do not ban the use of cars. Roseclear, which was banned by the government has, I believe, been returned to the market after strong protest from gardeners
I am a gardener who writes for gardeners. I make no apology for this. It would be extraordinary if farmers were not allowed to write about farming, or fishermen about fishing. Gardeners are, of course, are the backbone of horticulture. Given that there were no gardeners there would be no horticulturists, no garden writers, no nurseries and very few botanists. A gardener also has a special point of view. To the botanist every plant is of equal merit. Not so to the gardener. A gardener has to select garden worthy plants. These are plants for the garden not plants for the wild countryside. Gardeners want the merit of plants to be established. To the nursery every plant is a good plant because they have to sell it. But plants vary a great deal in their merit. The gardener wants the merit established. The only true trial-ground for a flower, is the garden. Growing plants in a nursery, even in a trial ground, is not the same thing as growing that plant in a garden. The great developments in gardening have, of course, come from gardeners. Let me just quote the names of two great developers - Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. Gardeners learn a great deal about gardening over their many years of gardening. Not always do they communicate what they have learned to others. We must encourage gardeners to write! Having said all this, gardeners profit greatly from the right influence of horticulturists and botanists.
Opening a bottle of wine tonight, and pouring a trial amount into a goblet, I was greatly interested to see the first appearance this year of a wine fly. This is a unique fly, attracted only to wine. I never see it except when I have wine in a glass. Where has it been through the winter? Where does it live when there is no wine around? How many generations, or centuries, will the wine fly wait for wine. It does not always imbibe the wine but seems to be content with simply the aroma. I let it do as it will because I do feel it deserves a drink or a sniff after its long wait.
My observation is perfectly relevant to our experience with clematis. Phoma clematidina is a tiny little fungus that can only feed on clematis. It has waited centuries for a good feed. It's first bonanza came about 1848 when George Jackman hybridised and one of the resulting plants, 'Jackmanii', made such a sensational entrance as to provoke a tremendous interest in clematis. Suddenly all the nurseries in Europe were growing clematis. The fungus has never had it so good. Soon there was an epidemic of stem-rot (clematis wilt) provoked by this tiny fungus. The other thing that happens when you have an epidemic is that the agent, in this case the fungus, is greatly strengthened. Thus, it does even more damage. So strong does the fungus become that soon the fungicides are no longer effective. This is one of our great problems today. This is an area for me, as a medical man, of particular interest in clematis. But having researched this, and you will find my papers elsewhere, the positive aspect of it is that now, given the new knowledge, I think it is going to be possible, at last, to effectively deal with stem-rot (clematis wilt). It's a bit hard on the fungus that has waited so long. But never mind. Years, generations, or centuries ahead, someone will make a mistake and it will have another opportunity.
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