Roddy Llewellyn: Go to grass
00:16 09 January 2012
Roddy Llewellyn: Go to grass
It is a fact that there are a number of plants that look marvellous when several are planted over a large area, whereas they look quite horrible as a single specimen. I am thinking particularly of pampas grass, dismissed by many as too vulgar to contemplate but, have you ever seen it growing in the wild in countries like Argentina where the feathery plumes add excitement and drama to an otherwise bland, rocky landscape?
The straightforward common pampas grass, (Cortaderia selloana) is the one to aim for if you want to recreate such a landscape, avoiding all those terrifying man-bred cultivars with pink plumes! The same treatment can also be given to many of the larger ornamental grasses like Stipa gigantea or Miscanthus sinensis or indeed smaller ones like Stipa tenuissima.
The first frost arrived on 23rd November in the Midlands. The whole year had its nose put out of joint ever since that sizzling hot April and most plants have performed at least one month late ever since. Nothing put on very much growth, even the weeds proved reluctant to proliferate. Looking at my garden, I am very pleased with it despite the fact I only started to plant out the borders four years ago. The plants that have done particularly well include Cerinthe major Purpurascens, which I bought as plugs through the post, because I could not find them for sale in any of the usual outlets. These invaluable border plants have proved to be the best conversation starters because of their startling blue foliage and flowers.
My attempt at growing a pale yellow phygelius up a fan of bamboo canes on a sheltered, sunny wall has done well so far, but then this beauty from South Africa has not yet had to endure a British winter. Time will tell, although I remain confident that it will thrive, because it is planted at the base of an old stone wall which always remains on the dry side throughout winter. My hornbeam hedge, planted in the autumn of 2008 has proved to be a huge success. Already seven feet tall, its average growth this year and last has been between two and three feet. If hornbeam loves you it shows it.
Another plant that loves the conditions in my garden is Verbena bonariensis, that invaluable perennial with lilacpurple flowers from mid-summer right up to the first frosts. It has self-sown all over the place having come through last winter when the temperature plunged as low as minus 19 degrees despite the fact that my text books tell me that it will not tolerate anything lower than minus 10.
There are certain trees that produce enormous leaves on vigorous shoots if they are cut back hard at this time of the year. I am thinking of Paulownia tomentosa (foxglove tree), Catalpa bignonioides (Indian bean tree) and Ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven). If left to their own devices they will grow into large trees. The art is to cut the main trunk back to about two feet (60cm) off the ground and then allow one or two new shoots to grow. In the case of the catalpa and the paulownia the leaves produced on these new shoots are about two feet (60cm) across or more. The two main reasons for growing these particular ornamental trees in this way is to add an element of the unusual to the back of the border or in a shrubbery, and to add interesting leaf contrast.
The keen vegetable grower will start to cover the soil with some sort of plastic sheeting during this potentially cold and wet month. It will probably need to be weighted down and tucked in at the edge, the purpose of the exercise being to dry out the ground for earlier than normal planting and sowing. Seed of crops like cabbage Hispi and Little Gem lettuce can be sown this month in a heated greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill indoors. You will be able to start buying potatoes for chitting this month. Foremost is a good early variety famous for its heavy crop. Pot-grown strawberries can also be planted in January. Keep your eye on the weeds. Groundsel and chickweed continue to produce seed even throughout the winter. If you spot either of these little pests pull them up there and then to stop them proliferating in the spring.