Friday, October 30, 2009

Irises - show time!

Late spring and early summer are one of the most exciting times in the garden. So many flowers choose this time to be at their best that we are spoiled for choice – Rhododendrons, roses, azaleas, and my favourites, the many glorious irises.
It is also the time of the year for flower shows, of course, and keen gardeners will be out picking and preparing their favourite blooms for display, and others will be popping along to the various horticultural society displays to see what is in fashion
I started out my adventure in the world of irises on my hands and knees, in my grandparents’ garden. My grandfather was a huge fan of the large flowered Tall Bearded irises, the ones that most people think of when you mention garden irises.
Despite my interest in some of the other types, I have to admit that these are the aristocrats of the iris world. They have multiple flowers on sturdy stems, with an incredible range of colours. If you have never seen modern garden iris, you ought to get along to these shows – I am sure you will be amazed at the modern bearded iris. The colour range is staggering – all colours except true red – and the form has also evolved, with tougher petals and lots of flounced and ruffles.
Of course Tall Bearded irises do have a potential flaw in our windy climate – they are tall and as such they can be prone to damage if we have a windy spring. There is a range of sizes in bearded irises, right down to ground hugging types, so it is possible to grow some that are nowhere near as susceptible to wind damage.
Almost all the bearded varieties need the same treatment – well drained, limey soil, and an open, exposed site. They will cope best if they are placed on top of the soil rather than being planted deeply. As long as those few simple rules are followed they are easily grown, and will give plenteously of their wonderful blooms.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tomato time again

This weekend is garden weekend, Labour Weekend, the traditional time to get all sorts of summer vegetables into the garden. Whether that is a good idea this year is an open question – are the southerly blasts we seem to be getting every week going to stop now, or are we going to have a continuation of cold nights?
I cannot pretend to know the answer, but I think I will be hedging my bets, and waiting a week or two before I plant my tomatoes out, and probably a little more than that before thinking of peppers, zucchinis and squashes.
Having said that I have already paid a visit to my local garden centre, looking over the wide range of varieties available, and choosing a few varieties for this year. I have them potted up and sitting on the bench in the glasshouse, allowing them to grow on a little bit before I plant them out.
I met a friend in the tomato section at the nursery and we discussed the various types on display. There was a huge variety, over twenty modern types for example. We agreed that we would both be growing some Sweet 100, well known for their abundance of small sweet fruit. We both pretended that we were growing for the children (or grandchildren) but we also admitted that we mainly grew them for ourselves, and that only about 40% of the fruit even got into the house. If you are first time growers of tomatoes, this is definitely one you should have in your mix.
My friend’s taste runs to much more exotic varieties than the aforementioned, and he will also be able to find an incredible range of heirloom varieties about at this time of the year. I was talking to a nurseryman friend about the popularity of these varieties the other day, and he said that many first-time gardeners, as well as more experienced ones, are excited about growing these different types. He said they are usually a bit slower to come into cropping, but they do fruit well later in the season, and certainly give a great opportunity for some adventurous salads.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Carrots for fun

‘Purple Haze’ - Jaspenelle Stewart

One of the major delights of having a garden is the pleasure that can be derived from sharing the bounty produced. It is fun to be able to give little gifts of flowers and fruits, and it is even better when those gifts can be used as part of a gentle encouragement to induce others into trying gardening on their own account.
I take particular joy in sharing our garden with some little friends of ours, de facto grandchildren who visit regularly. They always ask if they can take some flowers home, and are always keen to inspect the raspberry patch, forever hopeful that a crop may have miraculously appeared overnight. These inspections are regularly carried out in the depths of winter when we are struggling to find a vase of flowers, much less a trug of raspberries.
They have another passion which surprised me at first – they often ask if they can pull some carrots. It is not something I would have immediately thought of as being extremely attractive to two young girls, but they love the sweet taste of garden fresh carrots – and I suspect, they like being able to get their hands dirty digging for the carrots too.
I have a little surprise in store for them this year.
I have been hunting my local garden centres looking for F1 hybrid carrots, as I find they do so much better than the older open pollinated types. I simply could not find any until late this week, when one nurseryman had the cheek to show me some new hybrid carrots they had received – ‘Purple Haze’.
I am of an age that ‘Purple Haze’ is a Jimi Hendrix song about smoking marijuana, but it is an American bred hybrid, a Nantes style carrot, and the breeders have managed to take carrots back to their original purple colouring. The purple colouring only extends through the skin and outer part of the carrot – the core is still orange.
I cannot wait to see the kids’ faces when they pull purple carrots out of the garden!
The purple colour dulls considerably with cooking so they are probably best eaten raw, or perhaps just lightly steamed.
There are, of course, quite a few purple vegetables that share this trait. I have grown purple pole beans that also go green when cooked, and even purple capsicum loses much of its colour when it is cooked.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Herbs for health

The television programme that has been playing on Saturday nights recently must have had a few young people very excited initially, as it seemed to be offering advice on growing marijuana and opium poppies.
They were to be disappointed, although I guess a few will have stayed and watched James Wong presenting Grow your Own Drugs anyway, and may have learnt something about the value of gardening and the place many garden plants have in the medicine industry.
The programme has probably come at a good time, as many young New Zealanders are having their first taste of home gardening. A combination of economic belt tightening and a hankering for a more natural way of food production has seen many installing their first vegetable gardens. Some will be also looking at more natural health remedies too.
It is claimed that 60% of the world’s population rely on medicinal herbs for their medicines. In New Zealand nearly one-quarter of all prescriptions contain plant-based active ingredients - aspirin is derived from willow and meadowsweet, for example, and you are gargling with thymol (the active component of thyme) every time you open that Listerine bottle. Even the common heart medicine digitalis originally came from the wild foxglove.
On a personal level, I am perfectly happy to use take whatever my doctor prescribes for me, but there are plenty of herbal remedies for those minor ailments that do not really call for a visit down to the medical centre.
Perhaps one of the most fashionable of these medicinal herds is Aloe vera. This is one species in a large family of succulent plants, whose more decorative members are very much in fashion in the warmer parts of the country. They mainly have stately architectural leaves, arranged in rosette form and armed with bards, set off by dramatic candelabras of flowers.
Aloe vera, which is more restrained than many of its kin, is known as the burn-and-bandage plant. Its gel-like sap helps to regenerate skin tissue in cases of minor burns, scrapes, wounds, and sunburn, and then dries into a natural bandage. This one is not totally hardy and is often grown as a pot plant, but can easily be cultivated in a warm frost-free spot outside. The dried gel is said to work as an oral laxative, but I am never going to try that!
If you have got yourself successfully bandaged with the Aloe, but you are finding it hard to relax, a dose of chamomile may be just what you need. The best form is the annual species Matricaria chamomilla which makes a delightful apple-scented tea that is said to help calm anxiety, soothe insomnia, and treat minor digestive upsets. The leaves have been used as a poultice to encourage wound healing as well.
This is very easy to grow. It likes sandy soil and partial shade and as it loves to reseed itself in happy situations, sit will soon be happily ensconced in your garden.