Know your plant

By Ken Ellis – Cottenham Gardeners Club

Know Your Plant

There’s great excitement in our garden at the moment. Some years ago now, I brought a protea back from Madeira as a carry on article. It’s now in the process of opening its first flower. It may have bloomed about three years ago, if I hadn’t kept pinching out the emerging flower bud, thinking it was the growth tip! Well, it was, and still is, just one spindly stem, and I thought I’d encourage it to bush put a bit. Now it’s happily coming into bloom, and growing another shoot from the base. Oh well…

This is an example of what can happen if you buy a plant on a whim. We went to the RHS Hampton Court show, and came home with several plants that we wanted, and, er, several that we didn’t know we needed! I was careful to ask about their needs as I bought.

If you do, consider for a while what the plants needs are. Three ways to find out – ask somebody at who knows, (That stopped me from putting my spade through a strelitzia and damaging the crown that produces the flowers); look it up in a decent gardening encyclopaedia; use the great god Google. That’s how I found out from an Australian source what I’d been doing wrong. I can’t stress enough though the face to face approach. I asked a lady selling South African plants about my protea, and she told me how to look after it in England, what food to use, and how to prune it. You don’t have to go to a show to get advice though. I belong to Cottenham Gardeners Club, where there is a wealth of knowledge just waiting to be shared. Gardening clubs are a bit of an institution in Britain, and rightly so. If you are a lone gardener, new to the art or not, find your local club and go along. Certainly with us, you’ll get a warm welcome.  

On the subject of bringing plants home from abroad, the current advice is not to, even from the EU, from where technically you can. You may need a licence from anywhere else. There are a couple of nasty infections out there, including the ‘game changing’ bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, yet to meet this shore, and the appeal from the RHS among others is please don’t risk it. Useful information about bringing plants in can be found at

Specific groups of plants will have particular needs. The petunia family for instance like well drained soil and about 6 hours sunlight a day. Perfect for hanging baskets. Members of the primrose family like to have their feet damp, and reveal their woodland and hedgerow origins in enjoying dappled shade.

Supposing though that you have a particular area in mind? It may be a patch in your new build garden, or somewhere in your established garden that you’ve just got round to developing. Look at it over a period of weeks, ask yourself a few questions. Where does it face? Windy or sheltered? How much sun? What’s happening with the soil? Just a few of the things you might want to consider, but add in the final one, what do you want the area to do for you? Maybe in your new build, you feel you have no private area to retreat to. Think about trellis and an arbour over it. Let a variety of plants scramble over it that tick the boxes for the location. Make a list of things that you’d like the plants to do, and match your plant buying to them. Go to a good nursery or to a plant show. The people selling plants there will be only too happy to give you advice.

A very pleasant way to find plants that may help you, is to look at what nature does. Go for a walk in the woods, and see what plants grow on the edge of the woods and in clearings. They’ll give you an idea of what to plant in semi shade. You’ll see wild roses scrambling up the trees to the light, and maybe small perennial geraniums winking at you from the ground. (That’s the pergola sorted, then.) Peer into the gloom deeper in and see what survives there. It’s getting a bit late now, but I bet you’ll see foxgloves shining at you out of the depths. A good place to go? One of my favourites places is Holkham Woods and beach. You’ll see plants that can deal with salt, others that perform as I’ve described, and the wildlife that lives among them. There will be places near you where you can see how nature places plants. Go and have a look. What nicer way could you have to spend an afternoon?

As this is going out digitally, I’m able to show you some of our garden, and the plants that we grow.

Photo 2, above, shows an area against a hot dry south facing wall. Most of the plants on display are succulents of one sort or another, though there are two banana plants on the right. All the plants here enjoy the sun.

Photo 3 is at the opposite end of the garden, facing north. Honeysuckle and a rose form the backdrop, with hostas, Japanese anemones and a variety of leafy plants and shrubs.

Photo 4 is our alpine house. All of the plants here are hardy, but don’t like soggy conditions. Surrounded by sand, they just like being damp.

Photo 5 is what we call our hot bed. Adjacent to the area in photo 2, it’s filled with sun loving plants. There are even a couple of ginger plants in here.

Photo 6 is the back of Linda’s cottage garden. At the top end of the garden with dappled shade, framed by two ancient pear trees, and two equally ancient apple trees. All of the plants here don’t mind sun, but not all the time. We’re going to need to move those delphiniums!

Gardening is always a work in progress, and we are constantly looking to plant things where they’ll be happy. Join us in the fun, and enjoy your plants.

Enjoy your garden.

Cottenham Gardeners Club meets on the last Friday of the month at the Franklin gardens Community room. For any further information please contact Sarah Dumont 01954 260482.