Monday, 30 November -0001

Clemmie Hambro’s gardening week 10th feb

Pittosporums are very unfussy, mainly frost-hardy shrubs that act as a foil against all sorts of different plants

Written by Clemmie Hambro

This week I went to see a friend who has just moved house. We were staring out of the window at her new garden which, although tidy, was subject to intense February gloom – the immature plants cowering against the grey light and frosty winds. We were mostly discussing where the sandpit would be located and the best place for the table, when I was struck by a rich, velvety, purply presence glowing gently in the corner of one of the flower beds: Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’.

For a while I have planted several of the variegated varieties of P. tenuifolium. ‘Silver Queen’ is a favourite, with her soft, almost grey-green leaves and creamy margins and chic dark stems. A delicate, ethereal presence in a border and a wonderful foil against all sorts of different plants, dancing of more aggressive acid greens, lighting the darker ones and gently lifting all sorts of strong colours without interfering. ‘Irene Patterson’ is another contender with a more marbled, speckled effect on the leaves, while ‘Abbotsbury Gold’ is for those who prefer a sunnier look, with its yellow leaves and green margins.

And yet, despite having admired it in the past, I had clean forgotten about poor little ‘Tom Thumb’. But here it was doing its thing so impressively and enthusiastically that I felt rather guilty for some reason. P. tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ is a compact, evergreen shrub with in-tensely shiny bronze purple leaves and distinctive wavy edges. As a young shrub these leaves are golden green, but turn purple as they mature. From late spring through early summer it produces a smattering of small (fairly insignificant) purple flowers that smell pleasantly of honey. Its habit is satisfactorily rounded and cushiony and it doesn’t get too big – coming in at about 1 metre. Its diminutive tidiness makes it a good low hedge, even making an
interesting alternative to box hedging.

The deep, rich, warm vibrancy of its leaves makes it a winner in ‘hot’ colour schemes, looking fabulous with reds,
oranges and purples. Bronze-leaved dahlias, cannas, roses, tulips, crocosmias, hemerocallis, etc, would all look marvellous, as would other foliage plants like Ligularia dentata with its handsome heartshaped leaves, the delicate Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ or Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’. You might need to intersperse it with some zingy acid green to really make the purple sing: Euphorbia palustris, Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ or perhaps some ornamental grass like Hakonechloa macra.

Pittosporums hail from New Zealand and are generally regarded as merely being frost hardy. However, in reality I
have not come across many problems with them regarding the cold (I’m sure a few of the more mature ones might have been clobbered last winter) and seem to survive in even north-facing gardens. If you do live somewhere very exposed and cold, it might be safer to plant it nearer the house where it can get shelter, but otherwise have no fear. Apart from appreciating a good spring mulch, they seem to be very unfussy while working like demons to bring you year-round pizzazz. From now on, my garden and little ‘Tom Thumb’ shall never be parted again.

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Sarah Langton-Lockton on her allotment

Not an enticing day – cold and overcast – but I made a hurried trip to the allotment to check that all was well. I began my survey from the relative shelter of the unheated greenhouse, which is empty except for a few pots of strawberries from which I hope to coax an early crop in spring. The plot was in good heart for the time of year, but there will be lots to do when the sodden clay dries out a bit. The weeds are pushing through, usually a sign that the soil is warming up. Although there are buds on currant bushes, and the fat shoots of rhubarb are breaking through the manure piled high to protect the crown, allotment holders fear a late onslaught of vicious weather to counteract a mild winter so far.

The allotment site is ugly – tattered plastic everywhere, brassicas shredded by the pigeons, the discarded rubbish all
too starkly visible in the absence of leafy growth. But a gardener sees beauty in the desiccated seedheads, in the rich friable mix forming in the compost bins and the empty-seeming bed where asparagus spears will emerge like a prehistoric forest in early May.

A more conventional sight for admiration is the luxuriant growth of artichokes that will surely be dashed by frosts. I have not allocated time to do anything much, but can’t resist tinkering, freeing robust broad-bean plants that have grown through and got entangled in the anti-pigeon netting I covered them with just in case. I long for spring and
sustained hours of serious work.

And then friends arrive, whom I have not seen since before Christmas, and we all feel that the new gardening year is on its way. Marcia has been on extended trips to New York, with a family Christmas in Jamaica sandwiched in between. She talks about her parents’ garden where she competed with a hummingbird for the ripening mangoes. We agree that the more one gardens, the more observant one becomes and the more intense one’s enjoyment of the natural world. Giuliano is turning the compost in one of the two bins he built in the autumn from wooden pallets. There are no signs yet of the red, wriggling brandling worms that appear in compost that’s almost ready to use. These worms, a different species from earthworms, multiply rapidly in damp, partly rotted organic matter. When you spot them in large numbers in your compost bin, you can be confident that your compost is close to perfection; a soft, crumbly humus, known to compost fanatics as ‘black gold’.

The London Borough of Brent is consulting its allotment holders with a view to finding out more about what we want from the allotment service, and whether we would be interested in managing our own allotment sites. The cynics among us interpret this as a cost-cutting exercise rather than an offer of genuine autonomy. What is clear is that the current form of management, with a beleaguered allotment officer, with no budget, responsible for 22 allotment sites scattered across a large borough, is not adequate. Whether we are ready for selfmanagement, given the feuds, complaints and petty crime that seem to be endemic on all allotment sites, is a topic that will no doubt happily occupy many a tea break as the growing season progresses. What is unarguable is that allotment friendships are one of the joys of having a plot and as valuable as any produce.

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