Something old, something new

Apothecary's rose
Apothecary's rose

WHEN friend Tony saw anemone Wild Swan, hailed Plant of the Year on television coverage of Chelsea, he was immediately won over and later asked where he could buy it.

Having seen it on display at the show and asked the same question, we discovered that sadly, its not available until next year. But it begs the question, what is it that guides our choice of plants in the garden?

Crusader rose

Crusader rose

When the question is applied to fruits, vegetables and herbs in this garden, I guess that we go for reliability. That is vigorous plants with good cropping potential that also show some resistance to pests and diseases.

Our reasons for choosing ornamental plants are not quite so straight-forward. Year-round colour and form do come into the reckoning as does the ability of a specimen to appeal to the senses but what else governs the choice? A walk around the garden seems to highlight four main plant types for me – old, new, quirky and sentimental.

Old roses offer style and substance when they’re in residence. The Crusader rose is typical of this. We have it thanks to the late Dr John Johnson who rescued some stem cuttings from the garden of a medieval moated house in Nottingham and passed one on to us. The parent plant had been partially buried under builder’s rubble and was found after someone saw it mentioned in the deeds of the property. The evidence would suggest that a knight brought it home from the Holy Land.

The rose has white-flushed pink flowers that are mildly fragrant. Produced in an upright formation, they are easily damaged by rain but there is no such tenderness about the plant. It has a vigorous growth habit, reference the species surviving so long. To see it in bloom is to witness living history.

Rosa gallica Officinalis also sits comfortably in this garden. It was reputedly brought from Damascus to France then on to Britain in the 13th century. Also known as the Apothecary`s Rose or Red Rose of Lancaster, it can be a martyr to mildew. Propagation is achieved by digging up one of the many suckers it produces.

Boule de Neige (ball of snow) is a Bourbon type and relative newcomer (1867) by old rose standards but what a fragrance and cottage garden presence it has.

Newcomers to a garden carry a heavy burden of expectation. Redlove is the latest star of the apple world, even though those who’ve bought it have not seen it fruit yet. It was launched by Suttons in a blaze of publicity last year. The fruits we are told are red to the core but it’s going to be at least another year before that is put to the test.

The maiden tree that arrived via post last autumn comprised a single stem, a mere 30cms tall, but all credit to it for surviving winter and putting on at least another 30cms of growth since spring. The leaves have a lovely red appearance so it’s going to be both decorative and practical.

The other newcomer to our garden is a dwarf white Anemone nemorosa Vestal which has semi double flowers. It was shouting ‘Buy me’ on the Avon Bulbs stand at Harrogate and the lady of the house responded.

In the greenhouse there are several newcomers, including some grafted vegetables. We generally grow the Sungold tomato from seed but this time it is planted alongside two grafted specimens. I expect great vigour and bigger crops from the latter. The same applies to tomato Felicia, chilli pepper Medina and sweet potato Beauregard which are also grafted plants.

Quirky plants are fun, especially when visitors call. The sweetbriar, Rosa rubiginosa, was raised from a cutting several years ago. It has nasty thorns and unspectacular single flowers. However, the bright red hips last well through winter and the plant has a special scent. Both leaves and flowers exude the fragrance of ripe apples when rubbed between finger and thumb. Several other plants can surprise in this way. Try Cosmos atrosanguineus (dark chocolate), Borage (cucumber), Mentha requinii (menthol), etc.

But there is more to quirky than scent alone. When visitors first approach the mouse plant (Arisarum proboscidium) it is a mass of arrow-shaped leaves. Only in parting them do they find flowers that have the body shape and long curly tail of a mouse. And who wants to grow a crop of ancient woad (Isatis tinctoria)? I do, for the mass of yellow flowers. If cultivating peanut, loquat, citrus, date, avocado, coffee and pineapple plants is also considered quirky – guilty as charged!

Sentimentality and gardening are inseparable. You only have to read some of Shakespeare’s plant references or pick up a book of garden verse to appreciate that. Better still, walk around a friend’s garden and listen carefully to the provenance of special plants.

It’s no different in this garden. The late Dr Matthew Ryle, a top fuchsia breeder and good friend, gave me two plants several years ago that keep his memory alive. Whenever they are in flower here or are flagged up on television, he springs to mind. First up was Ophiopogon planiscarpus nigrescens, which is ideal if you are searching for a dwarf, front of border plant with a cluster of almost black, strap-like leaves. The mouse plant (already mentioned) was second but a third sneaked in as dormant seed in the soil on their roots. The Doc’s garden was overrun with yellow Welsh poppies and so now is ours but it’s a cheerful legacy.