Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Greenhouse Wrinkles

A famous quote by Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer, says that “you get the face you deserve when you’re fifty” – a milepost I passed sometime ago. Thankfully I’m one of life’s enthusiasts who can see the funny side of almost everything. I wake at dawn, wanting to tear into the day, and I’m jolly. Resolutely so. My face laughs with me now, “with more creases than a sheet”, to use a phrase I got from a gay waiter in Lyme Regis when we were discussing Ken Dodd – he of the tickling stick. That was over twenty-five years ago.  Funny how some things never leave you.

Two things can make me grumpy however, not seeing my two daughters and not being able to garden. It’s mainly the weather that stops me gardening at Spring Cottage for my Cotswold one third of an acre perches on the top of the plateau, picking up the full force of any south-westerly winds venturing up the Bristol Channel. It’s often windy, cold and exposed. Gales regularly rip off the chicken coup roof and scatter the hens, or send the cabbage nets off towards Bourton-on-the Water, or flatten my prized plants.

leaf cutter bee damage on roses.That’s when I retreat to my greenhouse, so that I can carry on regardless and get my gardening fix. A leaf cutter bee ( Megachile sps ) has had the same idea. She’s busy carrying discs of rose foliage into a black, plastic pelargonium pot. She zips past me, looking very like a honey bee but with an orange underside. She opts for matt rose foliage, rather than the shiny floribundas, and chews them into pulp to form circular cells that pack together to form a cigar-shape. Most nests are only four to eight inches in length ( 10 – 20cm).  It will be a very short cigar in that pot I’m thinking! It’s interesting that she’s chosen a black pot, as if she knew that that colour absorbs heat far more efficiently. When I’m potting up cuttings of tender specimens, such as Plectranthus argentatus, I opt for black too for the same reason.

When I take cuttings, and I take a lot, I use sturdy small seed trays and fill them with coarse horticultural sand. These are prepared in advance and kept moist in the shadier part of the greenhouse. Then when I’ve got cutting material in June, July and early August, I trim the two-to-three inch cuttings under the leaf node and plunge them into the sand, burying two thirds of the cutting. If I’m taking really tender things with soft sappy stems, Iike my beloved plectranthus, I put those in the middle and surround them with hardier things – such as pelargoniums. The coarse sand method, taught to me by a very clever nurserywoman, never fails. Sometimes I pot my cuttings up in September, seeking out three-inch ( 9cm) black pots. Others will languish in the small seed trays over winter, with fleece protection on the coldest nights. It’s an extremely useful system when you hear that snap of foliage when working in the borders. You can at least take a cutting, without having to mix up a special potful. It’s all there ready and waiting.

My favourite anecdote about cuttings concerns the late Primrose Warburg (1920-1996), a famous galanthophile who gardened on Yarnells Hill in Oxford. Probably Oxford’s most famous gardener, she summoned the young and newly appointed Hortus Praefectus from the city’s botanic garden to her home – one Timothy Walker. (The wittiest garden speaker ever by the way) He admired a plant and she offered him a cutting, as one does. “Is it the right time to take a cutting” Timothy asked rather nervously. The doyenne replied “the right time to take a cutting young man is when it’s offered.” Quite right too. Never refuse a cutting – and have those sand trays at the ready.

  • Jo Turner

    Enjoyed your post…Great advice about having course sand filled pots at-the-ready! Also chuckled at your Primrose Warburg story…I first heard of Tim Walker in the ’90’s reading a series he did in Hortus. As you say, very wry and funny! Was lucky enough to hear him at a talk he gave at VanDusen Botanic Garden here in Vancouver, in the late ’90s. He gave a wonderful, highly entertaining lecture on the history of the Oxford Botanic Garden, complete with details of early spending sprees that used all availablle funds for the entry arch, with little left for plants, etc. I look forward to reading more of your posts : )