Sunday, March 28, 2010

Clothed in nakedness

Regular readers of this column will now I am a great fan of autumn.  I love the cooling temperature, I relish on the sweet scents and savour the mellow fruitfulness of the decay of the growing season.  And, of course, I love the bulb season.
When we think of bulbs in March and April we naturally think of the plethora of spring flowering bulbs, corms and tubers that are now gracing the walls of our favourite garden centres.  But there are other bulbs (and corms and tubers too) that prefer to flower at this time of the year.  The remarkable thing about so many that flower at this time of the year is that they are naked – naked boys and naked ladies are both abundant, clothed in nakedness.
The naked ladies are certainly the best known of the naked flowers, and at one time all gardens would have had a stand of these reliable autumn-flowering members of the daffodil family.  
Known for years as belladonnas, (literally 'lovely lady') the botanical name for this hardy favourite is Amaryllis belladonna, and it hails originally from that land of fabulous bulbs, South Africa, from the rocky and dry soils of Western Province. As such they are ideally suited for growing in well-drained sites in New Zealand.  They flourish in poor conditions, and when well-suited will rapidly naturalise.  I think the best naked ladies I have ever seen were in the convent garden at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River – surely an unlikely place to find naked ladies!
Most gardeners are familiar with the light pink forms of this robustly growing bulb, but there is actually a lot of variation among them.  I love the white forms, and have seen two quite distinct forms.  I grow a pure white, which glistens with icy whiteness, but there is also a warmer looking form with a golden throat.  Neither of these seems to be available in the trade under any specific name.
There are also a number of brighter pink forms, the best of which is possibly 'Beacon' which is almost cerise coloured.  Dr Keith Hammett, best known for his work with breeding dahlias, has also had a lick at these plants, trying to breed salmon toned forms.  He has had some success and some new varieties are in the pipeline.  A friend gave me some seed from his programme (thousands of them) and I have some seedlings in the glasshouse, but I expect it will be a few years before I see any results.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The autumn blues

I had the mortification of rolling over another year last week.  It really does seem that they steamroll through so quickly that I cannot keep up with them. 
Still, looking on the bright side, I do have my birthday at the right time of the year for a bulb-loving gardener, as most people know it is a very easy gift for me, and each year I get my share of daffodils and tulips.  Fortunately,  I manage to get a few of the more unusual types each year as well.
This year, for example, I was given a little packet of striped squills – Puschkinia scilloides.  These are dwarf-growing members of the hyacinth family, and are most closely related to the blue bells and Chionodoxa.  They are very hardy, originating in the eastern Mediterranean, and will cope with almost anything the New Zealand climate throws at them.  They are small bulbs – about the size of a Lachenalia – and should be planted in full sun to light shade, in generous clumps.  In the spring they pop up with little heads of cool blue flowers, each petal striped with a deeper band. 
In England, this charming little plant is used for naturalising, but I have not seen it used that way in New Zealand.  Perhaps it is too fragile to compete with our stronger-growing pasture.  It is best planted near the front of a flower border or in the rock garden.
The nearly-related Chionodoxa species are perhaps even more attractive, the blue tones often being clearer.  These are called ‘Glory of the Snow’ because they flower very early in the season.  They make great rock garden plants and also do very well in pots.  Like the striped squills, they will look their best when they are massed.
The best of these is C. forbesii ‘Blue Giant’.  It has sky-blue tipped white flowers, and shines in the garden.
Like the striped squill, this is an easily grown plant that will grow happily in a sunny position with humus enriched soil.  It will cheefully set seed as well, which can be sown in seed trays and will germinate over winter.  It is easy to quickly raise large numbers of bulbs this way.
These little plants are closely related to Scillas, a genus that seems to be always undergoing revision, with species joining and leaving at a remarkable rate.
Perhaps the best of these is the striking C. peruviana, the so-called Peruvian blue bell, although it comes from the Mediterranean, not Peru!  It is a large bulb with thick waxy leaves.  The flower heads first appear as rounded heads of stars but as they elongate the flowers open to violet-blue.  The flower heads will eventually become 40 cm long. 
There are a number of different coloured forms, ranging from the usual violet-blue through lighter blues to almost white. They are very hardy plants, flourishing in quite neglected areas while still flowering year after year.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Daffy for daffodils

It is too ironic for words. All season long we have been complaining about the wet, wet, wet summer we have been having, and now, the beginning of March when we expect some rains, it has turned mild and fine on us.

Everyone I know is grumbling about their tomatoes – it just been an absolutely awful year for them – and mine, although fruiting well, look like nothing on earth. The bottom leaves have fallen to blight, and the top leaves are thin and ugly looking.

As always, though, we gardeners are an optimistic lot, so we are all looking forward to having a normal summer (whatever that means) next year.

The sunny days of March have been matched with some cool evenings, no doubt pleasing the orchardists who need a big diurnal temperature difference to colour theirapples. It is also a pleasant reminder to the rest of us that autumn has arrived and it is time to start thinking about planting some spring-flowering bulbs.

One of the delights of gardening in our temperate climate is the wide range of plants we can grow and bulb season shows that up, with cold climate species and bulbs from warmer climes elbowing for space on the garden centre shelves.

For most of us though, spring bulbs begin with daffodils, and I guess there are many for whom they end at daffodils as well. For most the image of a daffodil is a large trumpeted variety, probably golden all over, but there is a wide range of varieties, with a surprisingly wide range of colours and a large range of sizes as well.

One of the beauties of the daffodil is that it will grow almost anywhere in our country. Perhaps if you are gardening in the more humid and warm areas in the north of the North Island it might be a little more difficult, but for most of us it is quite straight forward as long as one or two little things are borne in mind.

The first is to simply remember that these bulbs almost all grow in meadows in the wild – they are used to quite moist soil in the spring. That means they do not want to be waterlogged over winter, but they also do not like growing in hot, dry conditions either.

Secondly, they like a bit of feeding too.

So, let’s assume we have been down to the garden centre, or perhaps spent some time perusing the colourful fliers garden centres seem to specialise in, and you have been seduced by some colourful looking varieties. What do you do next?

Well, actually what you do is wait. Daffodils are best planted once the soil has cooled down a little, so perhaps it might pay to wait another month before planting out. It is a good idea to keep the bulbs in the refrigerator during that time as a little chilling before planting will help to promote better flowering in the spring.

Where to plant is the next question. The best place is a well-drained sunny site with deep soil. If possible the bulbs should be planted about 20 cm deep as daffodils require deep soil to feed properly. You can plant even deeper in light soils, as that will help keep the bulbs cooler.

It is a good idea to work some bulb fertiliser into the soil while planting. Make sure it is bulb fertiliser though, as it is higher in potash and contains less nitrogen. The lower nitrogen levels are important as this element promotes leaf growth at the expense of flowers, and also makes the bulbs more prone to disease. Do not be tempted to use a general fertiliser for your bulbs.