Sunday, June 28, 2009

A posy

I spent some of this weekend pruning my roses, and giving some of the flowerbeds a general cleanup, and as I went I picked a little posy of flowers for my office. I was pleasantly surprised at how much out in the middle of winter.
The Daphne bholua in the Head Gardener’s border is almost at the peak of its flowering. This is a Himalayan species that has only been commonly found in New Zealand gardens for about twenty years. The forms from the highest parts of the Himalayas are deciduous, especially in colder climates, while those from the slighter warmer areas of the mountains are evergreen. I have grown a couple of different varieties in my garden and both stayed evergreen in our climate.
If you are only familiar with the “common Daphne”, D. odora, this species will come as a bit of a surprise. Instead of the slightly untidy, sprawling habit of D. odora, D. bholua has upright growth and can reach as tall as three metres high, although our plants seem to have topped out at about two metres. It is a tidy growing plant with attractive foliage, not shiny and longer than D. odora. If you want to keep it lower growing, it responds well to being trimmed – it can be cut back harder than common daphne, which does not like anything other than a light trim.
The whiter flowers, tinged with pink, have a lovely scent, reminiscent of D. odora, but not as strong. I love having a sprig or two of it on my desk, whereas I find D. odora too overpowering in close contact.
The Head Gardener has another winter-flowering shrub growing at the feet of the daphne – Correa ‘Dusky Bells’.
The Correas are underrated little Australian shrubs. There are about 11 species, but there is a lot of variation among the forms and it is quite likely that a detailed survey would result in more species being attributed.
‘Dusky Bells’ is probably a hybrid between C. reflexa and C pulchella. It will grow to about a metre high, with a similar spread, although it is usually confined to a lesser height. It carries drooping carmine-pink flowers through winter and into spring, and is at least hardy enough to cope with our garden, where it gets its share of frost. It can cope with full sun – Correas were once very popular in pebble gardens – but probably does best with some shade. It will grow well in moist soils.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ageing in the garden

There is a famous saying about old age - it never arrives unaccompanied. I think it usually means that as we age our physical health and strength deteriorate and we find it more difficult to do tasks we once thought of as inconsequential.
Ageing gardeners find this particularly so. Our backs, once strong and resilient, no longer enthusiastically embrace the thought of a day’s good digging in the vegetable patch. Even the idea of bending down for an hour’s weeding has them twitching. And the almost daily cycle of working in a large garden is simply too much for many previously active gardeners to contemplate..
Many older gardeners want to be able to continue when they downsize their properties and they come up with some clever answers.
Fred (obviously not his real name) lived just down the road from me, in a nice house with a large section – over a third of an acre. He came from the noble New Zealand tradition of gardening providers, his father being an enthusiastic vegetable grower. He recalled that this was commented on at his wedding reception, when one speaker said it was the sign of a happy marriage when the father was outside in the garden all the time, and not under his wife’s feet. (I must say I am not convinced about that – I recall one of our neighbours furiously turning over the potato patch whenever the domestic peace had been broached.)
Fred grew enough vegetables to make a dent in the family’s greengrocery bill (he and his wife has six children) by growing a good range of vegetables, although he forswore brassicas, claiming he could not bear the battle with white butterfly – a complaint I have a lot of sympathy with. He also grew a number of fruit trees.
He retired ten years ago. Shortly after that he suffered a bad angina attack, and decided it was time to downsize to a more moderately sized garden. He and his wife shifted into a town house, a short walk from the town centre. He now has two raised beds where he still grows vegetables, concentrating on potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and lettuces.
He also has some fruit trees, but not the large trees that once graced his large section down the road. This time he has two dwarf apple trees, and an espaliered pear tree. Like many of his generation, Fred’s big OE was after he retired rather than before he married. While he and his wife were in Norfolk he saw an avenue of ‘Ballerina’ apples, and was so impressed he decided he could look after a few of them in his new garden.
Fred also likes pears. On his OE he also visited Devon where he saw some ancient espaliered pear trees growing against a brick wall. This again inspired him and he bought a twin grafted tree, with ‘Red Bartlett’ and ‘Doyenne du Comice.’
Fred insists he is an ‘elderly gardener’, but someone who is prepared to take on new ideas in his retirement seems to hardly fit that mould.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Winter colour

The Head Gardener has been working her magic again. She has somehow managed to persuade the African Violet that has sat unflowering, on our kitchen bench for more years than I care to recall – more then ten I think – to pop up a flower spike.
To make the story even more remarkable, this turn of events has come from a large “cutting” she took some months ago. My parentheses indicate that this was far from a planned propagation – a large cluster of leaves fell off the aged plant when she was clearing the bench, and she popped it into a new pot, with some unused potting mix. I, of course, scoffed, telling her that African Violets took more skill than that to propagate, and that she was wasting her time.
In the time-honoured fashion of wives, she took delight in proving me totally wrong – the velvety purple flower being the proof of her advanced horticultural skills. Or her green fingers.
It made me think back to the time I was working in the retail side of the horticulture industry, and the large number of indoor plants we used to sell. Fashions have changed and ‘pot plants’ are nowhere near as popular as they once were – it seems few people have the time to take the sort of care special plants like maidenhair ferns require, and perhaps we have out houses a little warmer and drier nowadays., also making it slightly harder to grow many of the old favourites.
In many ways African Violets are great indoor plants for the not-too-serious gardener, as they are not very fussy about their growing conditions, even if they can be a little parsimonious with their flowers. They are small enough growing to be able to be kept on a window sill (or a kitchen bench) and they prefer to be kept slightly dry rather than overly moist, so a little forgetfulness in the watering department is not going to be punished.
They do not need a large pot – they seem to grow fine if their roots are a little constrained – although they do require a high potash fertiliser to keep them flowering happily.
The best way to water these plants is to fill the saucer the pot is sitting in until it cannot take any more water, then leave it until it has thoroughly dried out again before watering. Do not keep the saucer filled with water all the time – it will kill the plant.
The trick to keeping them flowering well is to feed them often – something we have been neglecting to do with our specimen. When each flush finished flowering, remove the old heads and then use a ‘flower and fruit’ liquid fertiliser. In extreme cases, you can put the whole plant in a dark cupboard for four or five days, and the shock will often induce flowering.
Or, of course, you can break it up and pot in a new mix!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Roses in winter

June has certainly got off to a freezing start – I do not think I can remember such a cold Queen’s Birthday weekend for many years. As gardeners, of course, we are a bit disappointed in the rapid chilling of the ground we work, but all this cold weather will hopefully result in a great benefit for gardeners when the new season arrives.
Surely the chilling will greatly help those tree that require a sustained period of cold during the winter to properly initiate flower bud formation, and with any luck the severe weather will have taken its toll on the pestiferous insects that can survive a warmer winter.
For some other jobs the cold weather has been a bit of a pain.
This is the traditional time of the year for planting roses, but the wet and cold has made planting just a little uncomfortable. There is still time though to get to work on preparing beds for new varieties, although the sooner the better.
Roses do best in fresh soil. If you have to replace a variety in an existing bed it pays to completely replace the soil with fresh loam – about a wheel barrowful per plant will be needed. This is because roses are very prone to a condition called ‘rose sickness’ – spoil that has already grown roses is almost toxic for some (but not all) varieties. As a matter of interest, some other members of the rose family (apples in particular) seem a little prone to the same problem.
Chose a nice sunny position for your new roses – they really do not flourish when planted in shade. There are, however, one or two varieties that do prefer a little bit of shade as the cooler temperatures will help stop the blooms from fading too fast. Even these varieties need to be planted in soil away from the competition of other plants, especially trees, as roses need good levels of fertility and moisture.
If you have not prepared the soil for fresh beds, make sure you get onto it straight away. The best soil is a stiffish garden loam, with good humus levels. Even then, I think it pays to add some farmyard compost (well rotted, of course) or bucketloads of compost. It is also a good idea to add in some general purpose garden fertilise too, then leave the soil to settle for a month or six weeks.
If you have bought your roses and the soil is not ready for planting, make sure you keep the roots well watered. In the golden days of the nursery industry we used to line out our bare rooted stock into beds of sawdust. They would be perfectly happy in that medium until the spring, when the few that had not sold need potting on into potting mix – or even better, into a customer’s garden.
When it comes time to do the actual planting, make sure to dig a big hole – not one big enough to squash the roots into, but a generously sized hole that will enable you to spread the roots out. I always like to have a slight crown in the centre of the hole so the base of the roots can spread naturally downwards. If the soil is dry (hardly likely this year) pop about half a bucket of water in the hole and let it settle before filling it with the soil mix, making sure to firm it lightly with the sole of your boot. When the plant is placed correctly, the union of roots and branches, where the named variety has been budded onto the stock, should be sitting at the level of the soil. The plant will have been sprayed in the nursery so it will not need any further care until the spring.