The Autumn Garden
This year the Castle and Gardens has been opening half an hour earlier each day. Also, due to the popularity of our tours and events, we have been extending our 2015 season by a whole month – so the Castle and Gardens will be open until 31 October!
Perhaps surprisingly, but much due to the mild climate we have here in Pembrokeshire, there is still a huge amount of colour in the Gardens during October and everything looks great. Last year the Jungle Garden (which is one of the largest in the UK) was still magnificent and luxuriant and the ornamental grasses in the Walled Garden looked stunning so take advantage of this and do come and enjoy our wonderful garden next month as well!
Roddy Milne, our Head Gardener, loves to share his passion for plants. Each week throughout the month we will add one of his favourites….
Perovskia atriplicifolia or Russian Sage as it is often called, is a member of the mint family and is a wonderful plant with a long flowering season through late summer and into early autumn. It is a low growing shrub but in cultivation is best cut down to the ground each spring to tidy the remains of last year’s flowering stems.
From the base of the plant rise slender flowering stems adorned with masses of tiny, soft-violet tubular flowers that create a bluish haze when seen from a distance. The small leaves of the plant have an interesting aroma somewhere between that of lavender and sage. It comes originally from mountainous areas of Tibet, Afghanistan and western Himalaya and is therefore incredibly cold hardy in a garden location.
The rather ethereal or misty quality of its flowering stems combined with its delicate lavender colouring mean that it is the perfect companion for other late flowering plants. In the spring here at Picton Castle we created some new large flower beds near the front of the castle which include drifts of Perovskia planted between the other plants. It combines beautifully with the rather solid looking Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and wispiness of ornamental grasses. The Perovskia provides a sense of unity and the overall effect, especially in the dew soaked morning, is far more atmospheric than I ever imagined.
Perovskia is easy to grow and is very long lived but it does require well drained soil and all the sunshine that is available. It tolerates dry, stony soil and is also very good for coastal planting, being very tolerant of salt laden winds. Perovskia plants are readily available from nurseries and garden centres. My favourite is the variety ‘Blue Spire’ which grows to about three feet, but for smaller gardens the newer variety ‘Little Spire’ may be easier to accommodate as it only grows to two feet tall.
The Ivy Leaved Cyclamen
The wild occurring species of Cyclamen are really beautiful and delicate looking plants. They seem very far removed from those very bright, large and highly bred specimens that are offered for sale, virtually everywhere, at Christmas. In their native homes the many species of cyclamen grow throughout the warmer drier parts of Europe, often in mountainous woodlands and around the Mediterranean basin. They are often called bulbs, but their swollen storage organ is actually a tuber designed to help them survive dry summer conditions.
Many of these beautiful species are tricky to grow and are the preserve of alpine gardeners who lavish them with immense care to make them flourish, often growing them in pots within a specialist glasshouse designed for alpines. Thankfully there are two species that are easy enough to grow in most gardens if the right spot for them is chosen. The first is Cyclamen coum which flowers in late winter and has pretty round leaves and white or pink flowers.
The other species, Cyclamen hedarifolium is in full flower at the moment with masses of delicate pink or white flowers rising from the ground and only four inches tall. The ivy-shaped leaves, often with a silver patterning on the surface, come later. Here at Picton we have ancient flattened corms over fifty years old and the size of dinner plates growing right at the bases of some of our largest trees. They seem to like this position and once planted are best left alone as all Cyclamen resent root disturbance. For this reason it is best to buy young growing plants rather than dried bulbs and plant them somewhere well drained but slightly moist with a bright aspect. I know a number of gardens in Pembrokeshire where happy cyclamen seed themselves around and look truly wonderful.
We used to have lots of Verbena bonariensis here at Picton Castle. I always took it slightly for granted due to its happy habit of self sowing, so there was a constant supply of new plants coming on. Then it disappeared for about five years, but this year it has made a comeback from seeds lying dormant in the soil. I am glad it’s back as I had forgotten what a lovely thing it is and I am sure the butterflies agree as it rivals Buddlea in its popularity with insects.
Verbena bonariensis produces tall branching stems that are topped with tight-packed, flat clusters of small, mauvish flowers. Although quite large it has an airy quality about it that is good for adding structure to a border but without the bulk. You can see through the stems to what lies beyond and it was this ethereal quality that led to it becoming immensely popular and fashionable about ten years ago after which its popularity waned and it is now rarely mentioned or seen.
Individual plants only last for two or three years or it may be killed off in a hard winter but will be replaced by seedlings that can reach flowering size in their first year. It grows best in fairly poor infertile soil which keeps it shorter in height and less prone to blowing over. It flowers for weeks on end and makes a good cut flower but I think looks best when planted with ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus or Mollinia.
The road verges of Pembrokeshire are often dominated at this time of year by a tall native perennial that is in full flower at the moment. It is called Eupatorium cannabinum but is better known as Hemp agrimony. Both names recognise the fact that the leaves of the plant bear a resemblance to that of the cannabis plant. The two species are entirely unrelated and do not share any other properties. It is to be found growing throughout the UK, but predominantly in Wales and the south of England inhabiting damp grasslands, wet woodland and along riverbanks but strangely will also be found on dry wastelands.
Though now little used medicinally, herbalists recognize its cathartic, diuretic properties, and consider it a good remedy for purifying the blood. This property was recognised long ago by Mithridates Eupator (134-63 BC), King of Pontus, who is reputed to have used a species of this genus which bears his name (Eupatorium) as an antidote to a poison that was in common use at that time. In the UK, country people used to lay the leaves on bread, considering that they prevented it from becoming mouldy.
Hemp agrimony grows between one and two metres tall and has annual stems that are topped with frothy pink flower clusters. Perhaps the most wonderful feature of this plant is its capacity to attract all kinds of insects, including butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral. Although a common sight in nature, I still believe it to be worthy of growing in a garden setting where the constant buzz of insects will provide endless fascination. It will grow and thrive in virtually any conditions.
Fascicularia – A Strange Bromeliad
I am often asked to recommend a plant suitable to place under a Leylandii or Privet hedge. There a few plants that can tolerate such arid and often heavily shaded situations but there is one plant, Fascicularia bicolor, that seems unbothered by such an environment. It is a terrestrial bromeliad and therefore closely related to tropical bromeliads often seen as houseplants, including the sort that you keep the central rosette of leaves filled with water. It comes from coastal forests of Chile where it grows on rocky hillsides and has proven to be hardy in milder parts of Great Britain such as Pembrokeshire.
Fascicularia will form a mound of narrow almost grass-like green leaves and then, during September, the central leaves of mature plants turn bright red and then a pale blue flower head forms deep within the rosette of leaves. The red and the blue make a dramatic contrast which lasts for many weeks. To grow well, the one thing it does seem to need is good drainage but beyond this it requires little else. Here at Picton we have a heavily shaded dry bank where they seem to thrive but we also have a forty year old clump growing in a horse-chestnut tree. It also makes a very good neglect tolerant pot-plant!
Rudbekias are a race of herbaceous perennials (i.e. they die down to ground level each winter and re-grow from the roots each year) that come from North America,where they grow in woodland margins and moist grasslands or prairies.
Sometimes known as ‘coneflowers’ or ‘black-eyed-susans’, Rudbekia fulgida, variety deamii, is a fantastic and easy to grow garden plant. It grows about a metre tall and for about five weeks at this time of year it is a floating carpet of incredibly bright-yellow daisy flowers. Each star-like flower has a dark boss of the actual flowers in the centre and these are very attractive to bees and other insects. Like nearly all Rudbekias it is easy to grow, being unfussy about soil type or quality. It will happily grow in full sun or partial shade and will not require staking or tying up to prevent the flower stems falling over. I have never known it to be bothered by slugs or other pests. After a clump is four or five years old it is advisable to dig it up, split it into smaller clumps and then replant it into dug over and re-fertilised soil. As well as maintaining the vigour of the plant this process will produce lots of surplus plants and if room permits you can embark on creating you own prairie. The patch here at Picton is about ten metres across and I plan to make it even bigger this winter.
‘Joe-Pye Weed’ is native to Eastern North America where it grows in moist meadows and woodland margins. Joe Pye (Jopi in the Native tongue) was an Indian healer from New England who used this plant to treat a variety of ailments. It is also said that the early American colonists used this plant to treat typhus outbreaks.
Its other or Latin name is Eupatorium purpureum and there is a dark leaved and stemmed variety, ‘Atropurpureum’, that is a particularly fine garden plant for this time of year when its tall leafy stems are crowned with masses of fluffy dark pink flowers. These flowers are loved by many insects including bees and butterflies. ‘Joe-Pye Weed’ looks good growing in a border but it is tough and large enough to be naturalised in rough grass areas. In this location its can look spectacular and form a dramatic specimen. Although the plant enjoys moist conditions it has deep growing roots that make it able to withstand dry conditions if required.
‘Ginger Lilies’ (common name) or Hedychium (Latin name) are, I think, the most tropical looking plants that can be grown year round in Pembrokeshire gardens but are not quite hardy enough to be grown in colder parts of Great Britain. In spring, tall leafy stems start to grow from rhizomes below ground and then from August onwards the various types start to flower. These flowers are highly intricate and, on many varieties, luxuriantly scented. My favourite is Hedychium ‘Tara’ (pictured above) which, when happy, can grow to two metres tall and has bright orange, tropical looking flower spikes thirty centimetres long. Another favourite (if that is allowed) is Hedychium gardnerianum which is half the height, has very slightly blue tinged leaves and a wide, highly scented, yellow and cream flower head. This species is also known as the ‘Kahili Ginger’ and like most ginger lilies comes from the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in India and Nepal. Hedychium are closely related to the type of ginger used for culinary purposes.
Here in the Gardens of Picton Castle we have grown about ten different species and cultivars outdoors for at least twelve years. As a precaution against the winter cold and frosts, each of our long established clumps is provided with a four inch blanket of straw as insulation for the roots. This is weighted down by a few lumps of manure to hold the straw in place. Beyond this they require no other care and seem to go from strength to strength with each passing year.