Monday, 1 August 2016

gravel gardening

I have been planting more things into the gravel in the middle of the turning circle.  Planting in gravel is a slightly tedious business.  You scrape the loose gravel from the place where you want to plant.  Then you peer closely at the exposed earth trying to decide whether you think there are bulbs down there, if you have bulbs naturalised in your gravel, which I have.  If you decide to go ahead and start digging bits of gravel will start rolling down into the hole.  You stop digging and scrape a larger area clear.  As you keep digging you realise you have not got enough space to put the excavated earth down on more bare earth and not gravel.  This is just to make a hole big enough to take a nine centimetre pot.

You do all this while kneeling in a very tiny space in between the other things that are already growing in the gravel, trying not to break any of them with your feet which are sticking out behind you, or kneel on any of the other things you have just planted, which now look absolutely tiny and lost in the sea of gravel.  Eventually you are ready to plant your thing, dibbling any accidentally exposed small bulbs back into the hole beside it.  You fill in the hole with soil which seems to be mostly gravel, scrape more gravel around the crown of the plant, and give it a dusting of fish, blood and bone.  I use miccorrhizae in the bottom of each planting hole to give the new plants a helping hand as they attempt to establish themselves in a growing medium that takes the concept of free drainage to a whole new level.  Generally speaking I give them a good watering, but as we are forecast to get a deluge of rain over the next twenty-four hours I skipped that bit today.

While in amongst the plants I also pull out the latest emerging shoots of creeping sorrel with as much root as I can extract.  Sometimes a section of root pulls up beautifully and I get six or eight inches of it, but often the foliage breaks away and I don't get any root at all.  I never get them all. The roots that run along just below the surface, if not virtually on the face of the earth under the gravel, give a false impression.  There will be further layers of creeping roots an inch, two, three, and four inches under the surface, weaving across each other and through the roots of other plants, and the occasional fat root diving down vertically.  By now I have given up any idea of eliminating the creeping sorrel: I merely seek to weaken it, and pick out most of the tufts so that it doesn't show too badly.

One of today's new inhabitants of the gravel was Argemone grandiflora, the prickly poppy.  I raised the plants from seed, and do not recommend trying to raise it in pots as I did.  It is a drought lover from southern US and Mexico with grey leaves and poppy like white single flowers, and is indeed a member of the poppy family.  It is supposed to grow two or three feet high, but mine have made sad little spindly specimens that are now flowering at the six inch mark.  There was a high attrition rate before even getting to that point, as quite a few of the seedlings damped off.  Opinions vary as to whether it is a true annual or a short lived perennial, but the plants certainly don't look as though they will be long for this world, either way.  With any luck they will seed themselves into the gravel, and with the benefit of hindsight I should simply have thrown the seed around the area where I wanted them and hoped they would germinate and grow in situ.

My other sowing intended for the turning circle has made more hopeful looking plants.  I've admired Dianthus carthusianorum at Chelsea for several years on the trot, and this year finally got organised to buy and sow a packet of seed, which could well mark its high point at Chelsea as I'm not sure it was used in as many show gardens in 2016 as in the previous few years.  It is a kind of pink, throwing up tall stems with small, vivid pinky-red flowers on top from low cushions of foliage.  It is supposed to like sharp drainage, sun and its own space, a plant to dot around in gravel rather than ask it to compete in the hurly burly of a crammed border.  That, at any rate, is how they were used at Chelsea and seemed to be the consensus of sensible opinion on the internet.  I like the idea of little dots of bright pink floating above the gravel, and with any luck they will self seed.  They are supposed to like alkaline conditions, and our garden is on the acid side of neutral, so we'll see.

Of course, you could spread your gravel over a membrane and not bother will any of the above, but that would be awfully dull.  And I have yet to see any scheme with gravel atop any kind of landscape fabric where bits of the fabric didn't pop up and show.  Planting holes cut into Mypex are the worst offenders, every plant surrounded by protruding wisps of black fibre, and you can forget self seeding.

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