Sunday, July 13, 2008

Glad to see you...

There are some plants inextricably tied up with childhood memories and old wives tales. For me there are the Muscari that lined the garden beds under my bedroom window – sailor boys we called the ranks of blue flowers. Sweet Williams are another flower I cannot separate from my childhood, recalling my mother’s desperate disappointment that they were biennial and did not flower for her in their first spring. Their multi-coloured flowers always intrigued me, and may be the basis of my enduring affection for most members of the vast Dianthus tribe.
Gladioli will always remind me of my mother’s front garden, where generations of these South African bulbs (strictly speaking, not bulbs but corms) grew untethered. There were only two colours that I can remember – a lovely apricot and, of course, white, white, white. My mother was certainly one of those who believe Gladioli can ‘revert’ to white. Most authorities aver it is simply not true. They say the white forms are more vigorous and simply out multiply the coloured ones. I accept what they say, begrudgingly, as my eyes tend to tell me the contrary, as my Mum had a great collection of white gladioli!
Mum was a frugal gardener and was rarely in a position to splash out for new bulbs, and I cannot help but think of her when I buy new Gladioli corms each year I am sure she would think it an outrageous extravagance, but I cannot do without a few new plants each summer.
I think Gladioli, with their sword-shaped leaves (that is where the Latin name comes from, the same root as gladiator =swordsman) are a bit tricky to handle in the average garden. If you have a large mixed border then it is relatively straightforward to plant clumps of Gladioli in various colours, but most of us do not garden like that. In the end, I have decided that I really grow these beauties for picking, so I grow them in the vegetable garden, where I can stake them without making the garden look too much like a bamboo stake field.
I used to go past the garden of a Gladiolus fancier, where the whole garden was given over to the cultivation of these corms. There were raised beds, terraced and elevated, everywhere, and miles of stakes. It looked great in the flowering season, but very ordinary at any other time.
Gladioli are not that hard to grow. They prefer full sun and well-drained, reasonable rich soils. They do not like to dry out during the growing season though. If they suffer a sustained dry spell they will almost certainly become infested with thrips and the glorious green foliage will turn sickly silver
I like to dress the soil with a little bulb fertiliser. I always use part of the garden that has not been manured recently as high nitrogen levels can lead to disease and rotting. The soil is very friable so I do not need to cultivate it, but in poorer soils it would pay to cultivate to about 20 cm.
Gladioli have a neat trick to enable staggered flowering. They bloom 100 days after planting. If you want to have bouquets for Christmas, just count backwards to the appropriate date and plant then. It also means you can stage the plantings for a succession of bloom.
I will not mention any varieties by name. It seems to me that the range changes every year and when I go back to me nursery to get extra stocks of one I have enjoyed the previous year, I find they no longer stock it. I will say, however, that there is an incredible range of colours available now, probably due to their popularity as cut flowers. I like strong colours, and have planted browns and reds over the past few years, but in the past have grown some lovely light blue and pink shades as well.
I have changed my mind about the size I like. I started out (like most men) liking the biggest flowers I could find, but over the past few years I have been only buying the miniature flowered forms. These are not the species-derived hybrids usually grown as Gladiolus nanus, these are small flowered forms of the summer flowering hybrids. They are a lot easier to place in the garden, and as they do not grow quite so tall, they are also more wind tolerant.
A few years ago I was in Gisborne in the autumn (the persimmon were hanging like Chinese lanterns on trees everywhere – amazing) and I saw quite a few gardens with a bright orange Gladiolus flowering in large clumps. I was very taken with it, not having seen it growing in our more southern gardens. I have since seen it in Napier as well. It is probably a form of Gladiolus natalensis, and I have never seen it for sale, but if you see it in a garden try and cadge a corm or two. It is a fabulous autumn plant.

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