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Rock On With My Garden

Rock On With My Garden

Dwarf Conifers in a Rock Garden

For over 25 years I have gardened a rockery or rock garden on a triangular patch of poor soil. I progressively scrounged and collected a range of granite, limestone and sandstone rocks and added them piecemeal. I aspired to growing alpine plants and recognised good drainage and shelter from winter wet weather would be key but that is as far as my planning would go. For the first couple of decades I was busy at work and wasn’t able to put in the effort of looking after small but hardy alpines.

One of the consequences of this lack of time was that I took the easy way out and planted ‘Dwarf and slow growing conifers’ that were a popular fad at the time. I also supported many alpine nurseries with my often ill chosen plant selections in attempts to buy a ready made garden feature. Latterly I joined the Alpine Garden Society and took advantage of shows and seed exchanges.

Then a latter stage crept up on me. The 10-20 year old conifers started to take over in scale and dare I say interest. Firstly dwarf can be a misnomer just because a conifer is small when planted it may very well just be a slow grower that has higher ambitions. I true dwarf conifer is a genetic feature of some species and are worth seeking out at the expense of other mass grown shrublets. Over time I dug out the larger and more boring specimens but still the alpines became less significant. I now have 20+ conifers of varying forms, colours and species taking over the alpines. The highest is 6 feet tall and may be the next for the chop one is low growing but spreads 5 feet wide and a favorite on mine is only 9 inches high. The space is still approximately 200 square feet but is extending into and adjacent bed past the crazy paved path.

Ideas for Rock Garden

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Protect Your Garden from Wind

Protect Your Garden from Wind


Specimen tree sheltered by High Hedge

A windbreak can make a big difference to a garden creating safety and an improved micro climate. After we reduced a large conifer by half many plants got flattened by the wind which was now able to flow over the shorter windbreak.

Top Windbreak Tips

  1. Hedges, gorse and natural planting will help break-up the flow of wind. Banked up soil with a hedge on top often features in large windswept gardens.
  2. Solid barriers such as walls can create eddies and vortex effects that cause more damage than they protect.  This was forcefully demonstrated to me with lost greenhouse window panes after a big blow.
  3. Plan a first line of defence to break the winds full force followed by a second line. Design both together to be complementary. I prefer natural breaks of trees as the prime windbreak but for ground level protection I use smaller shrubs.
  4. In really wind areas windbreak trees will grow lower or be stunted so bear this in mind when planning the number and proximity of plants needed.

Mixed Shrub Secondary Windbreak

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Bigger than the Biggest Aspidistra

Bigger than the Biggest Aspidistra

What I am talking about  are plants that are bigger than the biggest aspidistra in the Gracie Fields song book. They represent examples of the biggest natural organic organism in the world. I have three candidates for your consideration a couple of which may surprise you.

    1. Honey Fungus,  Armillaria mellea,  Armillaria ostoyae, and Armillaria solidipes also known as the humongous fungus, “honey mushroom” or “shoestring fungus.”  The largest measured example of unique DNA is believed to be in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. It is thousands of years old stretches, over 3 square miles, weighs 100s of tons, grows 10 feet deep and is acknowledged as the largest land organism on the planet.
    2. A plant in Fishlake National Forest colorado forms a colony of clones of Populus tremuloides also known as  Quaking Aspen, Pando or the Trembling Giant; it weighs in at an estimated 6,000 tons and may be up to 80,000 years old.  Clones and genet have identical genetic make-up and are a single living organism assumed to have one massive underground root system.  

3. The third candidiate and world heritage site is in Ibiza and is a  sea grass Posidonia oceanica also known as Neptune grass or Mediterranean tapeweed. Despite growing underwater it is not a seaweed but a grass that forms large underwater meadows in this case 5 miles long and over 100,000 years old. It is the largest example of a colnal colony


Other potential  biggest aspidistras include The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest structure but  is composed of a mixture many different living entities, the Giant Sequoia or amongst mammals the Blue Whale.

Latex, Opium, Sap, Gum and Resin

Latex, Opium, Sap, Gum and Resin

Opium Poppies – Geograph – Pods of the opium poppy at Woodcote, Oxfordshire


Dried latex is obtained from the seed capsules of  Papaver somniferum aka the opium poppy. Morphine, heroine and codeine are all derived from the alkalides in the latex. Latex is natural rubber.

Many  plants produce forms of latex rich in isoprene polymers including spurges, dandelions, ficus elastica, lettuce and chicle. Two most useful latex derived products are chicle for chewing gum and Hevea brasiliensis the rubber tree that is tapped to provide the latex for natural rubber production.

Latex can cause allergic reaction as gardeners with euphorbia may know from skin rashes


Tree Sap is obtained from maple, birch, or walnut trees and is a liquid less viscous than honey comprised mostly of water and sugars. Sap from a tree is made of sugar and water carried in the trunk cells.

Maple syrup comes from maple trees in the form of sap that is harvested in drips, from incisions in the bark, into a bucket hung from a tap hammered into the tree.

Sap has antiseptic qualities that can keep wounds from getting bacterial infections. Thus sap can  make wound dressings or when boiled down it becomes a sticky tar-like substance used for waterproofing (it’s believed by some that Noah used ‘pine pitch’ to waterproof the Ark)


Resin is a liquid found in the outer cells particularly of the Pinaceae family like pine, fir and cedar trees. Resin may be the trees way of removing waste products from the heartwood.

Resin is a sticky solid form of secretion that is highly valued for their chemical properties with various uses including the distillation of turpentine.

Amber is the fossilized resin from ancient forests.


Eucalyptus trees can produce a highly aromatic oil used  for cleaning, as an antiseptic and cough medicine.  Gum arabic is a natural gum made from the hardened sap of some varieties of Acacia trees. Its main uses are in the food industry.

National Oak Trees

National Oak Trees

The title of this post gives the game away but I will pose  the question anyway. ‘What do Croatia, USA, Germany, UK, Cyprus, Portugal, Ireland, Poland any several other central European countries have in common?’

You got the answer ‘Oak trees as their national tree’ predominantly Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur). Portugal are slightly different having the Cork Oak (Quercus suber) as their national tree. Ireland and Wales vary the selection and opt for Sissile Oak (Quercus petraea) and  Cyprus choose the Golden oak (Quercus alnifolia). Yesterday I retuned from Portugal having seen the cork oaks with the bark stripped to the pholem or inner bark layer to harvest the cork.

In this age of virus I have added a comment on a problem for Oak trees. Ramorum blight or ‘sudden oak death’ is one of the Phytophthora pathogens causing concern in UK woods and forests where it infects English oak, sessile oak, Rhododendrons and some other species of tree. It is evidenced by blackened spots on the leaf near the petiole and along the midrib of the leaf with areas of black “bleeding” on the trunk. This can lead to sudden oak death or a depletion of leaves and branches.

Xylella is a bacterium that causes leaf scorch on oak trees. Xylella fastidiosa is a range of sub species that infect a range of broadleaf plants. This pathogen prevalent in Europe and USA is transmitted by insects and is a concern for some British trees.

Do not let this stop you from growing and cherishing an Oak it will probably outlive you and several more generations. Not for nothing are Oaks venerated as National Trees by so many nations.

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How a dark background can show white flowers at their best

How a dark background can show white flowers at their best

The cast in order of appearance: Cactus Dahlia; Rosa Rugosa; Lenten Rose Helleborus orientalis; Moth Orchid Phalaenopsis; Water Lily Nymphaea alba; etc.

Organic forms have been popular art subjects not least those inspired during the Art Nouveau period. This selection of flowers will not be easy to replicate in drawings or paintings as the contrast between dark greens and bright whites does not leave many half tones to balance the picture. Probably your efforts will prove me wrong.

Black Arts of Painting White Flowers

  • It is all in the shadows hence the phrase ‘black arts’ or should that be grey?
  • A grey for shadows can be made with Prussian blue, Alizarin crimson and cadmium pale yellow but I use dilute versions of manufactured grey.
  • Take care with the colour, depth and tone of your grey for shadows.
  • Do not be tempted to surround flowers with leaves as an easy way out.
  • Focus generally falls on the area of greatest tonal contrast.
  • Shadows on a vase look better if composed in a way that it can be placed on the side nearest the edge of the canvas. It avoids halving the picture.
  • Try painting on coloured paper or paint a dark background.

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Litchen or Lichen and Some Interesting Facts

Litchen or Lichen and Some Interesting Facts

Lichen on tree bark

It is appropriate for there to be two spellings (and two pronunciations) for Lichen. That is because there needs to be a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria for a lichen to exist. Lichen is an organism that acts in a mutual relationship with  algae converting sunlight into vital nutrients and sugar whilst the partner fungus acts as the host to the new organism.  Thus a lichen is a composite organism that arises from living among   multiple fungi species and algae. Lichens have different properties from those of its component organisms.

Fascinating facts about Lichen

  • There are  20- 30,000 varieties of lichen with more being discovered every year
  • Lichen takes a vital role in the formation of soil.
  • Lichen grows on rocks, walls, buildings, trees and other hospitable surfaces.
  • With careful study Lichen can help with navigation when walking in the countryside. It predominantly grows on the north side of trees where the wind comes from the west
  • Sunshine can colour  lichen in greens, greys, yellows or even reds dependent on variety and conditions.
  • Lichen is a source of food for microbes insects and even reindeer. Some varieties are poisonous to humans.

  • There are three  distinct types of lichen: foliose, crustose, and fruticose. Foliose  are leaflike in both appearance and structure, crustose have a crusty appearance.
  • There are leafy lichen that thrive on rocks at he seaside called Xanthoria parietina with many common names like yellow scale, maritime sunburst lichen and shore lichen.
  • Lichens of the species Ochrolechia and Umbilicaria can produce dyes of beautiful brilliant purple and red shades extracted by urine  Orcein produces a reddish-brown dye
  • Letharia vulpina or Wolf Lichen is a fruitose of fluorescent yellow color making a dye of a bright yellow color.
  • The map lichen rhizocarpon geographicum is luminous green on the southern side where it can harvest more light and a black lines of spores with normal green due to less light on the north.

Lichen no a wall

  • Lichen do not harm living trees nor take any food from the bark. They do appear on trees that are older or in decline for other reasons
  • Lichen are long lived and slow growing
You Don’t Need a Weatherman

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

Bob Dylan knew ‘You don’t need a weatherman. To know which way the wind blows……”

‘Westering home with a song in the air’ I blame the west wind for this lopsided conifer. The bad pruning and poor early staking added contributed to the trees woes.

Doris Day in the windy city wondered ‘Will the new hedge provide enough shelter from the wind before it reaches the deadwood stage?’.  Noway! it is too late for this slanted ornamental tree in an open plan garden. Well ‘que sera sera’ as Doris would say.

Fascinating Facts about Horse Chestnut

Fascinating Facts about Horse Chestnut

Interesting Facts

  • Best known for the production of ‘conkers’. The spiky seed shell contains a shiny nut. The nut is threaded on to a string and the opponents conker is flicked until one breaks leaving a winner. Some conkers are treated with vinegar of other tricks to harden them for competition.

  • Due to chemical saponin in the nut they have historically been used for washing clothes.
  • Spiders and other creatures are frightened off by the saponins
  • The flowers are quite striking and form  attractive pyramid shapes, referred to as  ‘candles’, up in the branches.

Botanic Facts

  • Trees can be over 100 feet tall and long lived up to 250 years.
  • The palmate leaves can be disfigured  by leaf miner moths.
  • They provide heavy shade and little will grow directly beneath them.
  • Germination and initial growth can be quite rapid.
  • Aesculus hippocastanum or Horse-Chestnut flowers are white but there is a red hybrid Aesculus carnea