Archive for June, 2013

Picpost: Pincushion


KniphofiaA genus of 70 or so rhizomatous perennials from central and southern Africa, Kniphofia – or ‘red hot pokers’ – can often be found in moist places; alongside river banks, in grasslands or mountainsides. They are also called tritoma, torch lily, knofflers or poker plant. The Kniphofia genus is named after Johann Kniphof, an 18th-century German physician and botanist.

Kniphofia form clumps, with arching, strap-like leaves. They can be evergreen or deciduous, the leaves of the deciduous varieties tending to be narrower and shorter than the evergreens. They thrive in any soil as long as it is moisture retentive, prefer sun but will tolerate light shade and can vary from tender to fully hardy. Many tolerate coastal conditions. Coming from South Africa, they are not completely hardy, particularly in the far north. For safety grow the more hardy evergreen varieties, where you should tie up the leaves over the winter, so protecting each other from frost.  They are also susceptible to ‘wet feet’ – this is particularly bad in clay soils when they are also cold.

The flowers are cylindrical or tubular and usually hang down (‘pendent’), though in some varieties are upright. Flowers are borne well above the leaves in dense spike – like racemes. The flowers come in various colours, including green and toffee, but most of the commonly seen types open red and turn to yellow, giving  the characteristic, bicoloured flower spikes.

Red Hot Pokers make good cut flowers. The flowers produce copious nectar while blooming and are attractive to bees and butterflies. In the New World they may attract sap-suckers such as hummingbirds and New World orioles. They are low in allergens.

Tritoma group

A group of Kniphofia or ‘Tritoma’

Red hot pokers seem to have suffered a bad press over the years, stemming from Victorian times when one influential garden writer (Shirley Hibberd) thought they were vulgar and that their use required “a little extra care to avoid a violation of good taste”.

Cultivars range from 50cm to 2 metres in height, and the taller ones may need staking. Late-summer flowers such as Crocosmias look good with them, as do different sorts of marigolds; e.g. ‘Touch of Red’ and ‘Art Shades’ which are ideal for a showy look. Salvia uliginosa combined with yellow or coral-coloured pokers gives a more subtle effect. They mix well in the border with other tall plants such as Alliums and Echinops.  Sometimes a mixture of gaudy colours – Delphiniums, Alliums, Lilies and Knifophia – is quite attractive.

Kniphofia caulescens

Kniphofia caulescens

You can grow them from seed quite easily using ordinary seed compost – just push the seeds partially into the compost in April, water and they will be transplantable by summertime. Once mature, after a year of growth, the plant is dividable to increase stock. Do this in late September, into pots of 50% compost 50% grit. Dividing is easy enough, they pull apart quite easily and you can simply pot them up. Leave the divided plants in pots in a cool but frost-free greenhouse, and replant in May the next year. When transplanting your Kniphofia, dig a hole that is about 20cm deep by 10cm wide, and half fill with 50% compost, 50% grit mixture and then top up with compost and plant in this. Each spring give them a mulch with good rich compost. You can also give them a liquid feed in June when they start to show signs of flowering. I have some in my long borders at Old School Garden and they are just coming into flower.

Kniphofia and Echinops. Photo- Jenny Cochran's garden

Kniphofia and Echinops. Photo- Jenny Cochran’s garden

Further information:

How to grow Kniphofias- Telegraph article

How to grow Kniphofias-Mirror article

RHS- Kniphofia ‘Bees Sunset’ and other links

RHS 2007/9 Kniphofia trials

Old School Gardener

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PicPost: Up town potting up

PicPost: Echeveria

Playing out – and nature in the garden

street playA super couple of items from Monday’s BBC TV ‘One Show’. The first is about the new street play project in England, the following item about what nature can live in a square metre of a garden….The two items begin about 2 minutes from the start of the programme and last about 12 minutes in total.

Enjoy and share!

Old School Gardener

The GQT Panel doing their stuff

The GQT Panel doing their stuff

200 eager gardeners packed the marquee at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse Museum, Norfolk yesterday. Rather than post my own article answering gardeners’ questions I thought I’d devote this week’s GQT to a report on the real thing!

Well, it turned out to be a fascinating event, especially watching the ‘well oiled machine’ that is GQT in operation. Celebrating its 65th year of broadcasting this year the programme, as chairman Peter Gibbs said, ‘has become a national institution’ attracting some 2.5 million listeners a week. Pleading with the audience not to blame him for the recent weather (for non Brits he’s a well-known TV and Radio weather forecaster as well as a keen gardener), he recalled his time in Norfolk and visiting the Museum with a young family about 15 years ago. He went on to chair not one but two editions of the programme (I’ll give you broadcast dates later). And we were not disappointed with either the range and quality of the questions or the depth and humour of the Panel’s answers.

Earlier I had been involved in a ‘pre recording’ session with some fellow gardeners and the original Museum curator, Bridget Yates. Matthew Wilson and Bob Flowerdew, two of the panelists quizzed us on the history of the place and some of the more recent developments in the gardens. I was mightily impressed with the professionalism of the production team and the two panelists who seemed to conjure an interesting and relevant discussion from the barest of facts – you’ll have to listen in for the full version!

The GQT Team at Gressenhall- from left: Matthew Wilson, Chris Beardshaw, Peter Gibbs, James Wong and Bob Flowerdew

The GQT Team at Gressenhall- from left: Matthew Wilson, Chris Beardshaw, Peter Gibbs, James Wong and Bob Flowerdew

After this I was pleased to have the opportunity of interviewing Matthew Wilson myself, for the online newspaper ‘The Breckland View’. A well known Garden Designer and Director of an historic plant nursery in London, Matthew talked about his (positive) impressions of the Museum gardens and we went on to talk about growing food at home. Matthew believes this is important, not only for the freshness and flavour of the home-grown produce, but as a way for people to ‘reconnect’ with nature in an increasingly ‘virtual’ world. Though his own garden is small, he tries to ensure that his young children are able to experience nature and growing things close up. He seems to be undecided on the ‘GM or not GM’ debate, as frustrated as me on the apparent lack of ‘hard’ evidence to help us decide how to proceed with the urgent business of ‘feeding the world’, though he feels we can still achieve improvements in crops from some of the older techniques of selection and breeding.

The Question time proper featured a dazzling array of questions. The panelists – serial Chelsea gold – winning medallist Chris Beardshaw and ‘new wave’ botanist James Wong  joined Matthew on stage for the first session  – seemed effortless in their answers to questions as diverse as:

  • whether the museum’s collection of historic gardening books and other material is still relevant (a resounding ‘yes’ from all to that one),
  • trying to explain why one poor gardener could only produce some ‘micro rhubarb’ (pencil thin stalks 10 centimetres long) – the ‘answer lies in the soil’ it would seem, specifically the lack of rich, organic matter and the right position, according to Matthew
  • what kinds of veg could be grown in a wet and dismal summer – James came up with some interesting oriental varieties that in a normal hot dry summer would bolt, but in a more dim and damp period would turn out just right
  • selecting some ‘exotic’ but hardy plants for a patio. Chris initially shocked his audience with a suggestion of ‘black negligee and stockings’, but quickly added that these were references to some interesting plants – sorry, the names have eluded me after the initial image he created…!

And I can confirm that, as the programme repeatedly states, the panel were not privy to the questions before they were asked! The audience was very receptive to the ongoing banter and humour between the panelists and seemed to maintain their enthusiasm right through a second session (where James was substituted by well-known Norfolk organic gardener Bob Flowerdew). Chairman Gibbs praised our fortitude and two hours later it was all over! It had been an enjoyable evening and one where gardening colleagues were welcomed from far and wide the gardening Team from Peckover House, Wisbech and Master Gardeners from King’s Lynn being some of the furthest travelled.

The first programme should be broadcast at 3pm on Friday 5th July (repeated Sunday 7th July 2pm) and the second (from a more anonymous ‘Norfolk’ location this one) on the 23rd/25th August. So, tune in to BBC Radio 4 at these times (or try it online via, on their ‘i player’ or ‘listen again’ facility if you can’t listen ‘live’).

And for anyone within striking distance of Gressenhall this weekend, the Museum has a special interest day on Sunday focused on gardens and gardening, so why not pop along and meet me at the Master Gardener stall, visit the many other attractions on offer and see the gardens, which I must say are looking splendid (but then again I would say that)!

Thanks to Kings Lynn Community Allotment for the photographs

Old School Gardener

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Shine A Light

By Dayna Woolbright

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris

The words of William Morris seemed to be an appropriate introduction to a blog focusing on the Arts and Crafts movement. My inspiration for this topic came from crates 17 and 18 which contained a beautiful collection of Arts and Crafts furniture which came into the Norwich social history collection in 1995 as a bequest from a Mr D.W ­­Harvey of Norwich. The collection contained 22 objects and records state that much of the furniture was made by the donor’s father in the early 1900’s when the Arts and Crafts movement was at the height of its popularity.

Beginning in Britain around 1870 the Arts and crafts movement was the result of a reaction to…

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PicPost: Everything but the kitchen sink

From: Fun at home with kids

Trefoil - good for under sowing sweet corn and will fix nitrogen in the soil

Trefoil – good for under sowing sweet corn and will fix nitrogen in the soil

My first article in this series covered the 7 reasons to use green manures – any plants that are grown to benefit the soil. Today I’ll cover where and when to use them.

Vegetable Garden

Green manures can be grown as a ‘catch crop’ – something to fill a gap in the growing plan for any particular border, bed or growing area. For example, after lifting potatoes don’t leave the soil bare but pop in something like Grazing Rye or Winter Tares which can be sown quite late and will keep the soil covered in the winter months.

You can also sow fast growing green manures in areas where you plan to plant frost tender crops such as courgettes or runner beans, while you’re waiting for the weather to warm up. Some green manures will germinate in early spring and will keep the ground free of weeds. A few weeks before you’re ready to put in your frost tender plants dig in the green manure (leaves and roots) and this will be a good source of organic matter for greedy, moisture-loving crops like runner beans. However, don’t do this if you’re planning to sow any small seeded crops like carrots or parsnips as the green manure will inhibit seed germination.

Where you have a tall growing crop such as sweetcorn, you can sow a green manure between the plants to help reduce weed problems. A low growing plant such as Trefoil will keep the ground covered and this can be left to grow over winter once the sweetcorn has been harvested.

If you know your soil has been ‘over worked’ by previous gardeners (say in an allotment) and little bulky organic material has been added, it’s a good idea to grow a green manure in the first season.


Tares – great for releasing nitrogen quickly in the spring after digging in

Ornamental Garden

A fast maturing green manure can be used to fill bare patches as spring flowers die down but before summer bedding can be planted. Green manures can also be used to revitalise tired soils where old shrubs or roses have been removed and a new planting scheme is planned. The area can be left to recuperate under a green manure for a few months or a year. Attractive green manures can be used to fill gaps around summer bedding or other plants – a low growing variety will help to smother weeds and retain moisture.

Fruit garden

Blackcurrants are ‘greedy feeders’ and can benefit from a green manure which helps to take nitrogen from the air and fixes this in the soil for plants to use. A green manure such as Tares can be grown around the fruit bushes after fruiting and then incorporated into the soil just before the next growing season – just hoeing off the tops in the spring and leaving these to decompose on the surface should do the job.

Winter – hardy green manures can be grown around the bases of fruit trees in the autumn. Helping to keep down weeds these can be cut down and left to decompose in the spring which will once again provide a valuable source of organic material for the tree. A long-term green manure, such as Clover, could also be grown around the tree – this will provide weed cover and also be a rich haven for pest – eating wildlife.

Hungarian Grazing Rye - the best gareen manure for soil improvement, especially on clay soils

Hungarian Grazing Rye – the best green manure for soil improvement, especially on clay soils

My next ‘Green Gold’ article will give some examples of different green manures and their strengths and weaknesses.

Source: ‘Green Manures’- Garden Organic Guide. September 2010

Other articles in this series: Green Gold- 7 reasons to use green manures

Old School Gardener

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