Sunday, 24 August 2008

Companion planting: growing runner beans with pot marigolds

I can't help it but I have to mention the weather yet again! We've had all August's rainfall in the first two weeks of the month; the lawns are witness to this, growing more lushly and needing quicker cutting than I can ever remember. But despite all that, the garden looks wonderful, dreamy and hazy with golden seedheads on tall grasses, massed beds of Verbena bonariensis and swathes of perennials that are never staked but, being densely planted, have held each other up throughout it all. And there have been no outbreaks of pests or if there have, the natural balance of the garden has been able to compensate - blue tits speedily picking aphids from branches, ladybirds and hover fly larvae doing their bit in flower heads and thrushes pulverising snails on the brickwork!

One of the ways that we encourage this balance is by planting a wide range of different herbs and perennials, mixing plants up and allowing self-seeding or in the case of the vegetable garden, companion planting with pot marigolds. These vibrant double flowers, Calendula officinalis 'Orange King' were favourites of Gertrude Jekyll and I love their cheerful, bright Indian colours. Here you can see them grown in front of the runner beans which we are now harvesting - how delicious freshly picked runner beans are! We are growing a variety called 'Painted Lady' for its pretty bicoloured flowers in red and white, good enough to grow in a front garden.

There's so much to notice that is out in flower right now despite the fact that August is a difficult time to keep the garden looking dynamic. One of the hardest working plants I can think of is this low-growing Persicaria affine which spreads in flat mats across the paving slabs and breaks up the line of the gravel path. It's flowers just keep on and on, changing colour as they mature from palest pink, through deep pink to a swathy red. This means that you have all these colours at once on its spreading mass, and its attractive leaves will start to colour up too when the autumn comes. Our gravel paths are made from whinstone from a local quarry just three miles away - whinstone is what forms the rocky outcrops along which Hadrian's Wall loops and twists in much photographed undulations. The grey gravel is such a good foil for so many garden plants and hasn't had lots of miles to travel either!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Calendulas amongst the vegetables

What dreadful wet weather we have been having! Yesterday I took a coach party from Floors Castle Garden Club round the garden and it was the first time ever that I had to abandon a guided tour (luckily very near the end) because the rain was coming down so hard! They were, however, cheerful and resilient and vowed to come back when the weather was better. Despite it all, the garden looks lovely.

In amongst the vegetables we grow a particularly good form of pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) called 'Orange King'. This was one of Gertrude Jekyll's favourite flowers and she often incorporated it into her designs - it can be seen for example in the little walled garden at Lindisfarne Castle up the beautiful Northumberland coast, a garden which I included in my book Gardens of Northumberland and the Borders. Calendulas make good companion plant which is why we grow it as well as for the brilliant colour it brings to the vegetable garden. Grown amongst tomatoes, it helps prevent whitefly and lined out with broad beans it's a deterrent to blackfly. Here we've picked the heads without stems and laid them in a blue bowl filled with water with one of the passion flowers from the greenhouse in the centre.

The birds have not being enjoying the wet weather either and I noticed this youngster looking rather bedraggled among the angelica leaves. It's a young stock dove and I love the soft grey colour of its feathers. Alan Todd who carries out a bird count here submits all the records to the British Trust for Ornithology - he has recorded 68 different species including some less common species such as hawfinch. Last week I saw a bird of prey that I think might have been a red kite but I cant be sure til it's confirmed (I didnt have my glasses on!). It's not that unlikely since red kites have been seen just a mile away so we'll have to see if it comes back. If you are a keen birder, come along and see what you can see!