Sunday, 19 August 2007

Colourful AGM chives, marjorams and Joe Pye Weed

Cutting back herbs half way through the season is a great way of having a second (or third) crop of fresh leaves to harvest as well as sometimes producing more flowers. The multicoloured rows in the chive bed were cut down over a month ago and are now looking colourful again. In the picture you can see ordinary chives Allium schoenoprasum at the back, with the rich pink of 'Pink Perfection' and the bright, large heads of 'Black Isle Blush' in the foreground. Both these excellent varieties originated at Poyntsfield on the Black Isle & received an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS. They look so attractive that they can be grown at the front of a flower border or used in combination with low grasses or silvery plants such as lambs ears.

The marjorams are in full flower right now, the plants in the National Collection grown in defined clumps for propagating and identification with a separate area where they are allowed to run riot and self seed in a very natural Mediterranean hillside kind of way.

A plant from a very different kind of terrain, Joe Pye Weed looks rather spectacular in late August and September. Growing wild in damp meadows (on the same sort of land as does our native meadowsweet) this gorgeous tall perennial is way above my head this year, revelling as it has done in the wet summer. Last year, it was a good three feet shorter! Nice to know something has done well out of all the rain. It's a plant that does fine in flower arrangements and lasts ok - I've just given some to one of our volunteers who has the month of August to do the flowers in a local church. Also good for attracting insects, this plant usually has masses of hover flies, bees and butterflies around it but butterflies seem to have been really badly hit by the weather and we've seen alarmingly few - even though the long buddleia hedges are full out. There's lots of late summer flowers out in the walled garden and at least there are plenty of bumble bees.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Roman herbs & astilbes

The acanthus in the Roman garden looks wonderfully sculptural at this time of the year; hardly surprising then, that its leaves were the inspiration for the capitals on Corinthian columns. The tall flower heads are really very prickly, but the flowers dry well, keeping their colour without collapsing which can be unusual for white petals. Any that hang over the path get cut and put in the shop for flower arrangers to buy fresh or dried. The Roman garden is divided into four beds; two of culinary herbs, one of medicinal and one of sacred herbs, and it is in this last bed that the Acanthus is planted. Next to it is a large bush of myrtle, a plant long associated with love, sprigs of which are put into wedding bouquets. (Queen Victoria had myrtle in hers) Its young leaves when squeezed smell of bubble gum!

Also in the sacred herb bed is vervain which was dedicated to goddesses, firstly to Isis and then to Venus. Roman women would make small garlands of vervain (and also violets and lavender, both in our Roman garden) to lay on the household altar. We know it was used in Britain thanks to archaeological evidence - pollen grains were found during digs at Roman Silchester in Berkshire.

There is plenty I could write about our Roman garden and I'll concentrate on cooking herbs in a future blog. For now, let me show a picture of how the astilbe border looks right now. As the walled garden is south facing and free draining, the only place to put damp-loving plants is in the shade of the bottom wall. In a normal summer when the rest of the garden gets hot and dry, the astilbes can revel in the moist soil down there, alongside some of the hostas, but lack of rain has not exactly been a problem this year! The astilbes self-seed happily and I love their various shades of pink, from candyfloss to deep salmon mixed in with some whites. There was goats beard in this border just before the astilbes came into flower - Aruncus silvester - a lovely white fluffy effect, but I have cut all the flower stalks out now because when over they go a sad shade of brown. Early August is a time of massive cutting back all over the garden, to allow fresh foliage to come through and to stop too much self-seeding; some is wonderful and looks natural, too much can be too much - it's a careful juggling act!