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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Monday, 26 October 2009

Nothofagus - The Not So False Beech

With autumn we often think of trees and colour.  Sometimes if you look closely at a tree you will begin to notice the way it grows, or the way its branches hang.  Often during autumn when our eye is concentrated we also notice the bark of a tree.  Some trees have slightly grotesque bark which comes off in ragged edged plates whilst other have long scar like fishers of tissue which builds up into a micro-landscape.  Other trees have smooth almost silky bark, which has a soft sheen and appears almost stroke-able. (Picture View from Painswick Beacon)

 I wonder that it these similarities we attribute to trees must have been how one of my favourite non-native groups of trees was recognised.  Explorers in Chile discovered Nothofagus oblique and named it ‘roble’ after the Spanish word for oak with which they thought it shared a resemblance.  First introduced in 1902 Nothofagus, meaning false beech is related to Fagus and currently in the family Fagaceae, although it does have marked differences with some taxonomic experts suggesting it should move into its own family Nothofagacea.  Bear with me, plant taxonomic identification is a pet subject for me, and one of my favourite plant family, although an artificial one was always Amentiferae, or as those who prefer all floral families to end with the same ‘acea’ (such as Umbelliferea, now slowly becoming Apiaceae) the group Amentaceae.  Amentiferae is the family of plants, which bear their flowers in catkins, amenta.  This includes Salicaceae, Corylaceae, Betulaceae, Platanaceae, Juglandaceae and Myriceae.  This group was still widely used when I studied 10 years ago but most modern classification systems have not retained the group.

(Picture Nothofagus Obliqua) Nothofagus are a close relative of beech and look strikingly similar.  N. Obliqua is a narrow crowned tree fairly fast growing reaching heights of around 100ft.  At the top of the tree the branches grow upwards whilst in the middle they arch with smaller lower branches spreading out and down, resembling a young fagus.  The leaves are small bearing pairs of veins reaching the edge if the leaf in-between the serrations of the edge as opposed to the tip of the serration which is more common in this type of leaf formation.  The distinctive herringbone pattern the leaves of N. oblique make is shared by only one other member of the family, Nothofagus antartica.

Now the amusing thing with Latin is that the species name we are often taught tells us something indicative about the plant, such as Convolvulsu chilensis, or Aster novi-belgii, both referring to the place of origin or Viburnum sargentii and Crinodendron hookeri both referring to the person who discovered them.  Therefore Nothofagus antarctica should be straightforward however it is in fact native to Chile and Argentina.  It is also the most southerly growing tree occurring on Hoste Island, which is 2200 miles north of Antarctica. 

The Antarctica in its names refers to its extreme hardiness, not surprisingly it does rather well in the United Kingdom.  N. antarctica can reach heights of up to 80ft.  It has a slender trunk with scaly bark and alternative small mid green leaves, which are covered in a sweetly scented wax.  Unlike N. obliqua with its serrated leaves N. antarctica has broadly ovate leaves with crinkly rounded edges, which are almost wavy. (Picture Nothofagus antarctica)

N. obliqua and N. antarctica are both deciduous and turn rich shades of crimson and gold in the Autumn.  Nothofagus betuloides is again native to Chile but is however evergreen.  It can withstand cold temperatures down to -20C and is therefore a very hardy and valuable landscape tree.  It has a columnar habit, up to 80ft and with maturity develops a large almost flat topped head . 

(Picture Nothofagus betuloides) The leaves are very small, ovate, serrated and a rich glossy green.  New growth appears on stunning bronze red shoots.  It has been widely grown in Scotland and has lovely pinkish timber, which being a hard wood makes lovely furniture.
Although Hornbeam, Beech and Lime are my favourite landscape trees, Nothofagus comes very close to them for its merits of inclusion in broader and large scale planting.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Thoughts of Autumn

As a gardener I approach the end of the year with a slight sense of satisfaction.  The glorious weather of the last couple of weeks has allowed me to sit, at the end of a days toil I must add, with a cup of tea and just take stock of the garden.  

Its easy to do yourself a dis-service and remember what hasn’t gone so well, the seeds that didn't germinate or the plants that no matter how hard you tried either died or were eaten.  Overlooking this endless list I instead concentrated on what had done well and I could be pleased with.  

(Photo: Rudbeckia in front of the Exhedra, Painswick Rococo Garden)
Our trial bed of grasses revealed which plants are indeed worthy of inclusion in the garden, Muhlenbergia glomerata really stood out, not only were the basel clump of leaves still buzzing with fresh green colour but the delicate seed heads and stalks have seemed to defy the winds and remain up right and perfectly posed.  No mean feet in our wind swept garden and being over 5ft in height.  

I planted Aster l. 'Calliope' for the first time last year, after admiring its rich black stems, dark green leaves and almost neon purple flowers in other peoples garden.  Mine is now looking looking just perfect, reaching well up to 6ft and covered in flower it looks stunning.  I planted it in a border which is backed by Eucalyptus. The combination of the peeling pinkish - brown bark and silver foliage with the aster works really nicely.  I have noticed however that the Elymus canadensis does not work here at all as there is to much green in its leaves and its delicateness would be better shown off elsewhere in the garden, perhaps with the long lasting Eupatorium ‘Gateway’?

In the spring we planted a long border in front of our chickens run.  We have 8 in total, a mixture of Rhode Island Red, Brahma and Crested Cream Legbar.  We keep them within a sizable run due to scratching.  However this did not stop them escaping and in one afternoon turning the border into something which resembled a newly plowed field.  Rather than be annoyed at the loss of Agastache schropulariaefolia amongst others, we realised what great workers chickens are and we have devised a pen which fits over the raised beds in our kitchen garden where a pair of birds can be set to work bug clearing and turning over the top layer of soil before planting.  An added bonus will be the free manure they will deposit.

(Photo: Autumn Colour in the garden)
Of course gardening is an unending series of lessons.  Nothing is ever in vein, earlier this year I was asked to be involved on a gardening course and I talked about the history of herbal gardens.  In the afternoon a young lady lead a practical session on herbal remedies.  We all learn’t many valuable lessons on different plants and use’s.  One plant was lemon balm, Melissa officinalis.  I left the day thinking I must plant more of this wonder herb and now after forgetting to cut down the flowering stems to get a second crop of fresh foliage I fear that the herb garden may actually become a lemon balm garden. If only it was enclosed by protective walls I would be able to bring in lemon trees and olives in huge terracotta pots long with olive jars and claim it was for underplanting in a courtyard I hoped would catch something of essence of Grasse over the happy mistake it will become.

For many of us the coming winter is a great time to sit down and start searching through seed catalogues and nursery lists, as they seem to arrive almost daily in the post with renewed promise captured in each page.  By January I have written and rewritten so many lists that I wonder where the space will come from to grow everything on.  This problem is always added to by listening to talks and lectures.  I am sometimes invited to speak to gardening groups and often, like many speakers, get told off for adding a fresh suggestive list of plants to be included along side the seed catalogue and nursery list.  Still this is a part of gardening which is inevitable, the addictive need to grow more plants and ones we haven’t got! - or perversely ones which insist on dying!

(View Across the Valley from Painswick) However whilst the sun is still shining then we will continue to be working at the nursery and out on clients projects enjoying the changing autumn landscape around us.  Tillia and Oak are turning rich shades of yellow and gold each day now and will soon begin their progression to the ground.  Liquidamber is a great choice for the garden being amongst the first to start turning to rich burn’t sugary colours and one of the longest lasting, holding its leaves well into November.  I love to crush the leaves and breath in the cinnamon fragrance.  

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A Starting Block

As a boy I was lucky growing up a stone trows distance from the Botanic Garden in Oxford and I would spend many happy hours wandering around pretending it was my garden - this would lead to some slightly hairy moments when the gardeners rightly wondered what I was doing in the midst of the herbaceous borders!

At the weekends I found myself a little job working in a small plant shop in Summer Town, I never asked for money but rather took home seeds, plants and all manner of bits and bobs to make my own garden at home.

Although, looking back I had the most dreadful sense of 'taste' (I was only in my teens).  My own garden felt very much an escape from everything, school masters, noise etc, and I was encouraged by our elderly next door neighbours who had seen the War first hand and knew lots about plants and nurturing not only a garden to life but also my growing gardening ambitions.

At Malvern Autumn Show I was approached by a young lady who, as we got talking, told me about a school she was involved with in the centre of Worcester.  The children there were starting up their own school garden.  I was very excited for them and asked how it was all going, sadly it was not going as well as you may take for granted and finding plants and materials to get started was proving difficult.  I made some suggestions and also offered them a couple of plants from the show garden.  I gave them  a couple which are good hard working plants and can easily be propagated either from seed or cuttings.

Over the weekend a letter arrived for me at the Rococo Garden, nothing unusual about that so I opened it with little thought as to what may be inside.  The school children had all written to thank us for the plants, each member of the gardening club had signed the letter.  I was slightly taken back and felt very happy that something I had done without thought of reward had been so sincerely received. 
It took me back to my school days and our next door neighbours patiently teaching me about gardening and instilling a passion for plants.  Their garden was well tended and carefully considered, my own little plot was a jumble of colour, textures and a collection of my latest finds.  However that didn't matter,  it was a starting block and I rather feel that the children who took the time to thank me for just 3 plants I gave, have found a starting block in the lady who approached me at Malvern.

Because I know that they are really keen to make the most of their garden, Sean and I will be sorting through our bags and packets of half used or forgotten seed as soon as the nursery closes to send to them.  If you have any spare packets or half packets and would like to pass them on please let us know.


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