In the Blue Corner, Arthur Turner with a Grey Dagger and a Sex Change Inducing Banana Skin

Poor shale, lots of wood ash and plenty of acidic rain means growing intensely blue Hydrangeas is fairly easy at Gelli Uchaf, these are in the south westerly corner of our crazy croquet lawn area. 4/08/11

The title of this blog isn’t a solution to a strange local variant of the game of Cluedo, but developed from a bit of research into Hydrangeas, inspired by a couple of days away looking at other gardens in Herefordshire. Just as important to us was having a couple of days of not doing. It’s really difficult to just relax in your own garden at this time of the year, with so many tasks to be tackled. We first visited a remarkable garden called Moor’s Meadow, voted as one of the most romantic gardens in the UK, established over 60 years and still run by the 89-year-old creator of the garden and her daughter Ros Bissell. I’ve not seen as many butterflies or dragonflies in any other garden we’ve visited in the UK, and the 7 acres of planting in a beautiful peaceful setting is a stunning long term creative tour de force.

We also returned to see Hergest Croft, and found a wealth of Hydrangeas in bloom, most clearly labelled, and this prompted some on-line reading of RHS trials into the paniculata forms, which in turn led me to think about sowing some Hydrangea seed. For the first time this year, I’ve found a single self-sown hydrangea seedling beside a large white H. serrata bush in our larch copse. Although I’ve been aware of the tiny central flowers on many bushes, I’d never really noticed significant seed pods. Now I know why. Hydrangeas are in the Saxifrage family, and so produce very fine seeds. I’ve already gained lots of free mossy Saxifrages in the garden by clipping off the drying seed heads of these flowers and shaking them onto the surface of the ground where I want the plants to grow. I shall now try the same technique this year with some Hydrangeas, though will probably shake the seeds onto a specific area of soil. A couple of months after the flowers have been pollinated (so I guess about October for many varieties) should be the right time to collect the seed, which can be sown straight away or kept until the following year, when at temperatures of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, germination should occur in about 2 weeks. Right now in one corner of the mossy croquet lawn bed, the blue Hydrangeas are looking stunning, since the intense rich blue H. macrophylla ‘Blaumeise’ is adding its presence to the other H. serrata and H. macrophylla flowering there.

Very few flowers seem to give such a big blue impact in the garden as the Hydrangeas,and the added bonus is the way the colours fade or change completely over weeks. In the case of ‘Zorro’ they deepen into September/October to a rich purple.

Wouldn’t it be exciting to germinate a new Welsh variety?

Hydrangea paniculata Vanille Fraise 4/08/11

I discovered from the RHS trials of paniculata cultivars that the vast majority of the best ones (AGM awarded) have been bred by a single Dutch nursery. Although you don’t get the blue colours amongst the paniculata forms, they’re much easier to manage, and blooming as they do on the end of current year’s growth means that they avoid the risk of frost damage to the flower buds which has affected some other macrophylla cultivars after the hard winters of the last 2 years, and resulted in no flowers at all. The other interesting fact gleaned from these trials is the impact of the pruning regime on the eventual plant size, and number and size of blooms. I’ve previously cut all paniculata cultivars down to about 6 inches of stems in early spring, but I might cut a few back a bit less severely to achieve a larger bush this year. Though I suspect that these larger bushes will then be a bit more labour intensive to deal with in subsequent years.

Unknown Hydrangea serrata cultivar 4/08/11

On the same morning that I took the photos above, I took a few images of heavy dew, after a cool early August night, on some of the rapidly swelling Arthur Turner apples.

Dew covered maturing Arthur Turner, a mid season cooking apple which seems to perform well with us 4/08/11

I don’t always dash out with the camera at 6.45 am, but early and late light is usually  the most photogenically interesting in the garden, and on this day banks of dark slate clouds were massing over the hills to the South West, and rain arrived within the hour. Arthur Turner is a mid-season cooker, and was a late replacement for a pear tree which completely failed up here (Pear – Milton Court). In spite of being planted 3 years after its immediate neighbours, it’s quickly caught up, and seems healthy, reasonably vigorous, and producing pretty blemish free large fruit. In between the heavy showers of the last few days, I’ve been doing a secondary summer pruning of the apples.

I completed an initial summer pruning really early on this year in mid June, around the time that I thinned the apples out. In addition I’ve selectively removed leaves from immediately next to fruit on all the spirally trained trees where this is easy to do. The rationale for this is 2 fold. Firstly it avoids the fruit becoming too shaded from the sun, and thus allows it to warm up more, which as I’ve discovered with the tomatoes is key for fruit ripening and colouration. (You get an obvious ‘bikini line’ type effect on colouration on an apple skin where a single leaf shades half of the fruit, and an associated temperature difference on the apple surface between the sun exposed, and shaded areas, of several degrees C.)

A Lane’s Prince Albert apple where a leaf covers part of the apple surface 4/08/11

The leaf removed showing the significant difference in skin colour with the leaf removed 4/08/11. Lane’s Prince Albert cooker. There also is more blemishing in the area of skin previously hidden under the leaf.

But secondly I think that this leaf removal has allowed better air circulation and quicker skin surface drying which encourages healthier fruit. It certainly doesn’t prevent disease completely, but in what has been another poor summer for sunlight from June onwards, after a sunny dry spring, the apple quality overall is the best that I’ve ever managed. But this is a very unconventional pruning approach, the normal advice being to summer prune once, around now, and if necessary also winter prune. Maybe this double pruning is something I’ll try to do every year from now on, and perhaps it’s a way of tackling the vigorous growth and consequent shading and lack of air circulation resulting from our very wet climate.

The other task I’ve finally got round to is labelling the apple trees. This helps to remind me which variety a particular tree is, and roughly when to harvest it. Perhaps eventually I might remember what all the trees are without the labels, though the way my memory is failing, this seems too much to hope for!

Lane’s Prince Albert spirally trained apple tree 4/08/11

It’s also easier for garden visitors to appreciate the better types to grow in this sort of environment. A couple of days after putting the labels out, I gave a mini guided tour to 3 visitors, and on walking down into the fruit and vegetable area, one lady made a bee line to the first tree with already red, small fruit and asked if she could eat one, since she wanted to taste an apple straight from the tree, as she remembered from her childhood. I said that would be fine, but showed the label on that particular tree (‘Cecelia’) and that it shouldn’t be picked until mid October, and the apples will then keep up until March, and took her along to the George Cave instead where she helped herself. They all seemed surprised at this variation in apple types – when to pick, and how long they keep, but I guess with the handful of varieties which most people are now exposed to on supermarket shelves, often shipped in from the other side of the world, this reaction is quite understandable.

Whilst pruning the trees, I found 2 moth caterpillars. The first is that of the Grey Dagger, which I’ve seen once before, although then it was feeding on our Rosa glauca hedge.

The young Grey Dagger caterpillar, replaced onto a Rosa glauca stem for photography. 7/08/11

Adult Grey Dagger Moth, from ‘In A Different Light’ images, my DVDROM of Garden Moths. The ? indicates that even with a good photo some moth species can’t be definitively identified without dissection of the genitalia……something which I’ve never been prepared to do!! In the case of this moth there is a very similar species called a Dark Dagger.

The second took a while to identify, as that of the Nut-tree Tussock. The definitive feature on this being the tufts of orange hair along the back, with the separate tuft towards the tail. The overall background colour of this caterpillar can vary quite a lot, from brown/pink/grey and my cream background is what confused me for quite a while.

Nut-tree Tussock caterpillar on apple tree 7/08/11

Adult Nut-tree Tussock moth – ‘From In A Different Light’

In the vegetable garden, the Squash and Cucumber plants have been misbehaving. 2 of the 3 types of squash have completely failed to grow, after strong plants grown on in the greenhouse suffered with the very cool nights in late June, early July. But the remaining variety (sadly I don’t know it’s name) has grown quite vigorously after I’d pinched out the growing tips after the plants had formed about 5 leaves. However although lots of small female squash flowers had formed, for a long time there were no male flowers to pollinate them.

Female squash flower 7/08/11

Male squash flower 7/08/11

At last after fertilisation, a female squash flower starts to swell into a decent squash! 7/08/11

As a result the canary yellow little squashes failed at the large marble stage. At last in the last 10 days a few male flowers have appeared, and I’ve used these to pollinate the newer female flowers. It’s surprising just how quickly the now fertilised fruit start to bulk up. I was aware that the same thing was happening with the greenhouse grown cucumbers – lots of small female flowers with mini cucumbers, but no males, and although the plants look really healthy the baby cucumbers were aborting and dropping off. Researching this turned up what I thought I’d already heard on a radio programme, that all Cucurbita (squash, courgette, cucumber, etc), will produce mainly female flowers and very few male if the temperatures are on the cool side. If the temperatures rise, then male flowers will be formed. But why had the greenhouse grown cucumbers been misbehaving, where the temperatures must have been adequate for many days and nights?

The answer perhaps might have been the banana skins which I’ve already referred to in a previous blog being used by me as a source of ethylene gas to try to encourage tomato ripening in the greenhouse. One of the other effects of ethylene in Cucurbita is to influence the sex of the flowers that the plant produces, in particular to promote female rather than male flowers. Whether the ethylene is solely or partly responsible is difficult to prove, or whether it is simply heat/light effects this year, but at last I have some male flowers opening. So, as with the squash, I’m hand pollinating to ensure a belated crop, since insect numbers aren’t that good in the greenhouse, and I’d quite like to save some seed from the one squash variety that has performed well.

A visit from a friend yesterday brought a further interesting insight into the sparrow hawk in the swallow barn which I mentioned in my previous blog.

All the small birds have had issues with predatory raptors this years, including swallows in the barn. Perhaps they always have, but this year, I’ve actually seen the culprits on at least 4 occasions.

Apparently his neighbours up the hill had also recently seen what they thought had been a female goshawk in their barn where the swallows nest. So perhaps my bird wasn’t a sparrow hawk, but a Goshawk – the 2 birds are even to the expert eye not that easy to distinguish – and I certainly don’t have an expert eye ! And maybe it’s discovered a new hunting ground for easy pickings of second brood swallow chicks? Certainly although we had large numbers of first brood chicks this year, the barn is now devoid of parents feeding chicks since the predator’s appearance.

View from the Dumpy Bags down into the shrubbery/butterfly garden….sadly lacking butterflies so far this year. 3/08/11

Terrace garden 7/08/11

Clematis ‘Etoile Violette’ in shrubbery 06/08/11

Fuchsia magellicana alba 07/08/11

Finally, as I type this up on another gloomy, grey, drizzly morning, I’m aware of a sense of unreality (or is it reality?) describing these mundane outside events in rural Carmarthenshire, as the flames engulf our cities and the global markets, and the politicians return from foreign climes to take a grip on things. Reality? Unreality? Dreamland?

As I signed off from my film ‘Epiphany In Translation’.

Grumpy Hobbit in Dreamland

Rosa ‘Felicia’ . Sight and scent to cheer the soul in gloomy times 07/08/11


4 thoughts on “In the Blue Corner, Arthur Turner with a Grey Dagger and a Sex Change Inducing Banana Skin

  1. I shall never look at a banana skin with the same eyes again! I had not quite realized what a difference the specific type of hydrangea can make to the kind of blue – I had always put the ‘blueness’ down to solely the soil ph. Presumeably the same applies to pinkness!

    • Hello Rinka,
      Thanks for the comment. Re Hydrangea colour there was a variety of H.Macrophylla ( Merveille sanguine, I think) which we saw at Hergest Croft in 2 different locations about 100 metres apart. In both cases the leaves had a bronzey black hue, but in one place the flowers were a rich dark blue/black( quite unlike any Hydrangea we’ve ever seen before, and in the other location the same plant was a deep red/burgundy. My cuttings of the stunning blue Hydrangea ‘Zorro’are all flowering a deep pink, since the soil that I potted them up into, came from excavated topsoil with modest sized chunks of lime in it, but perhaps I should check up on exactly what the biochemical trigger for colour change is,
      BW, Julian

  2. Julian, Very interesting and varied post. I recently fell in love with hydrangeas now that I have a deer fence and can actually grow them. I must admit though that the blue cultivars are not my favorites because to me they look fake. I realize I am in the minority on this.

    • Hello Carolyn,
      Thanks for the comment. Actually I never used to like blue Hydrangeas either, and we had a garden visitor a couple of days ago, and I asked as they finished the garden tour if they’d liked the Hydrangeas, and got a very definite NO! So maybe they do polarise opinion, but they do give stunning colour in a woodland setting, when most other flowers are waning. But I’ve also been researching the whole ph/Aluminium/colour change subject, and was about to google the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease correlating with acid water. We have our own spring, and have only recently got ph modification for the water. It’s obvioualy a very complex subject, but it seems that some plants can cope with the potentially toxic effects of Aluminium in an acid soil by concentrating the aluminium into certain parts of the plant…….more later!
      BW Julian

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