Sunday, August 28, 2011

Time to think about potatoes again

Our neighbour popped her head through the hedge that separates our two properties at the weekend, to pass on some women’s magazines to the Head Gardener, and to ask whether we wanted a few ‘Cliff’s Kidney’ potatoes, as she had bought too many for her garden.
I was forced to say that I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I will not be planting any potatoes this season, as there are only two of us in the house now, and the Head Gardener is no great fan of potatoes – I still have a lot of tubers left from last year’s crop and I would not be able to get through them all.
There was a time when all vegetable gardens featured a mass planting of potatoes – in fact, many gardens were literally established out of a potato patch.  The custom has long gone, but it was traditional to plant a crop of potatoes on a new section, before you had even built the house, the theory being that the deep cultivation required for the potatoes would help set the land up for the later gardens and lawns.  Once the house was built and beds laid out, most garden would feature extensive plantings of a range of varieties, with ‘Cliff’s Kidney’ and ‘Jersey Benne’ being the favourites for earlier in the season, while’ Red King Edward’ and ‘Rua’ were two favourite main crop types.
If you have enough people in the family eating potatoes still, they are an easy and worthwhile crop for the home gardener, and I think all newbie gardeners should try their hand at growing a crop or two of these.  In fact, I suspect that I will be unable to resist putting just a few tubers down myself, because I do not think Christmas would be quite right without an early morning trip down to the vege patch to bandicoot a few  shining new potatoes for the dinner table.
Last year I planted two different varieties – the white fleshed ‘Rocket’ for an early variety, and the pink skinned ‘Desiree’ as a main cropper.  The idea of  ‘early’ and ‘late’ sometimes confuses new gardeners, as it does not refer to the time of the season the tubers need planting, instead being a reflection of  the amount of time needed from planting to cropping – that is, early varieties mature more quickly than main crop or late varieties.  That means that, once the season has moved on and it is getting late for planting potatoes, you are better off to plant ‘early’ types as they will crop quickly, before the frosts arrive.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Silver trees of red and yellow

Today the Head Gardener and I went down to the nursery to look at some Leucodendrons.  I have to say it felt a little odd looking at South African plants after such a cold week, but most Leucodendrons will cope alright with the sort of weather we have just had, as long as they are in a well drained site.
There are about 80 species of Leucodendrons, with a staggering number of sub-species, forms and varieties, many of them bred in New Zealand and Australia.  They are all native to the Cape area and have their flowers non separate male and female plants.  The flowers themselves are relatively insignificant, but they are surrounded by often very decorative bracts.
In the wild they grow in the same sort of conditions they require in the garden – they need well-drained, acidic soil (not too rich in humus either) and they need full sun for the bracts to colour up properly.
I suspect the Latin name for the genus, with means “Silver Tree” must have been given after a botanist saw the remarkable Cape silver tree, L. argenteum, with its large green leaves totally covered in silky silver hairs, giving the impression of a silvery sheen.  In the wild it can grow quite scruffily but in the garden it is a delightful sight, staying well clothed and performing well, especially if kept clipped when young.  It seems to need better drainage than most varieties, and it is definitely less frost hardy than most common species, but if you have a warm spot this is a spectacular plant.
The most popular of all Leucodendrons is undoubtedly ‘Safari Sunset’, a hybrid raised in the 1960s and very quickly developed as a cut flower.  At one time it seemed to be in every garden, and in vases in every American television programme as the epitome of chic.  It is less planted nowadays but it is still a very valuable plant for the winter garden, providing a great dash of colour at a time of the year when there is little else around.
It is an enthusiastic growing plant and is inclined to get away a little if not kept clipped when young., reaching up to about three metres if allowed.  Trimming is fun of course, because you can pick the stems for the house.  They look especially good at this time of the year when the dark burgundy colouring of earlier in the year has faded a little and the centre is starting to go yellow.
‘Rising Sun’ (photograph above)  is another good red coloured variety, probably intermediate in size between the two foregoing types.  It has bright bred bracts over winter fading to cream for the spring.  This is another good variety for picking. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Currant news

When there is snow quickly accumulating on the back lawn and it is freezing cold outside what else would a garden writer be doing but thinking about summer fruits, and how we should be making sure we have any new plants well and truly tucked into their garden beds soon.
My parents were not great small fruit growers , although my mother was keen on black currants and had a row of bushes that straggled across the back garden, and there were a few ferocious gooseberry plants too, but they were only looked after in a desultory fashion.  Although I quite liked Mum’s black currant jam, I certainly could not raise too much enthusiasm about going out to help her pick the thousands of berries needed for her jamming exploits.
I was a bit remiss really, as they are excellent plants for the novice gardener to start their fruit growing career with, being relatively easy to grow and very hardy.  In fact, coming as they do from the hard northern climes, the will probably be relishing a bit of snow at this time of the year – they need winter chilling to fruit well.
The variety you are most likely to come across is ‘Magnus’, which has very tart fruit until the very last minute before they ripen – the kids will certainly not be thieving them to eat them half-ripened!   The plants do best in humus-rich slightly moist soils, and prefer it to be slightly acidic – Rhododendron country suits them well – so make sure they are not planted in thin dry soil.
When you plant a new bush it pays to prune it back to two buds above the ground then leave it to grow and do not prune for two seasons. After that you will need to prune to shape by removing the old stems to a new low bud, removing at least a third of the old canes. Plants do best with about ten shoots per bush, none of which should be older than three years. To foster young wood you should cut down old wood to new buds in winter.
Red and white currants are also great for the home garden, and although they are related to black currants, they need a different planting and pruning strategy.  When you first plant you should prune to establish a short main trunk. The following season, chose four main branches making a vase shape with an open centre. Each winter, prune these branches back and allow a few more to develop until you have established a framework with about eight main branches. Each year prune these back by about half, and then at the fourth year remove one or two of the main arms back to its lowest new shoot each year as these currants bear from permanent spurs and will bear for a few years.  You should aim to have an open growth habit with main wood in the two to three year bracket.
All these currants have attractive shape and they would make a pleasant boundary hedge around the edge of your vegetable garden if they were carefully managed.  If you had a variety of different types you would also have an attractive fruiting feature in summer.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A lot of flannel

I wonder how many garden writers are going to be spending time over the next few weeks pondering whether we are having an early spring or not.  It seems to me we are – there are Magnolias in full bloom and I have buds on some of my irises that should not be in flower for months yet – but I would not be so sure that spring is nearly here.  It does not take too much to make the God of Spring withdraw again until a more appropriate time.
I have been enjoying the slightly milder weather though, walking to work most days, taking circuitous routes so I can check up on some different gardens and see what is doing well this year and  I have noticed a couple of Phylica pubescens bushes putting on great displays.
These flannel flowers, or featherheads as they are also called,  are South African shrubs, from the buckthorn family although they have more than a passing resemblance to some of the many African proteaceous plants, in that their true flowers are hidden in the middle of (in this case, slightly) showier bracts.   The whole shrub has attractive almost-grey foliage, and is a welcome addition to the shrubbery for that fact alone, but over the winter flowers (and the bracts) are formed and by now the the hairy leaves are topped with golden flowers.  It is a fabulous plant for the winter garden, and anyone who likes picking flowers for the house will love this, as the flowers last for weeks in the vase.  In the garden it prefers conditions pretty much like those you would expect a South African to prefers– dry, well-drained and not overly rich soils, in an open situation.  They look tender but seem to be able to cope with most frosts our conditions throw at them, growing to about 1.5 metres high and the same around.  Like many South African shrubs, they are not long lived, but should last more than ten years.
I think they go really well with some of the other  South African plants that are in flower now – the Leucodendrons and Proteas look similar enough, but also different enough, to blend well with these shrubs.  Thespecimen I photographed this week is growing in dampish soil in an open position in the middle of a lawn – not the sort of location I would have recommended but it is doing fine.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Glorious Hellebores

Despite it being "clean the tools weekend" I did not spend the whole time in the tool shed – when Sunday turned out fine I took the chance to do some pricking out in the glasshouse, with the last of the iris seedlings to line out, and the Delphinium seedlings I grew from the seed from Dowdeswells to put into pots. I got a lot done but ran out of potting mix and needed to go to the local garden centre, always dangerous because there are going to be things there I am going to covet.

This time it was a great display of Hellebores, with singles, doubles and all sorts of in between forms on display. Commonly known as ‘Winter Roses’ (although they are not remotely related to roses) these are fabulous plants for the late winter/early spring garden, available in a range of subtle colours, very apt for this time of the year.

Hellebores are not too fussy about where they grow as long as the soil is not too dry, and as long as it does not become bogged over winter. They are perfectly happy in semi-shade, or even complete
shade, but they will equally well cope with full sun, as long as the soil they are planted in has plenty
of organic matter.

Once you have got them established trim off the dying leaves of deciduous varieties and remove the
seed heads as well, encouraging good strong growth and more flowers.

One of the first species to flower is Helleborus niger, mainly seen in the stunning form called ‘White
Magic’. This has brilliant white porcelain–like flowers, relatively large and carried close to the
foliage, which remains tidy over the summer. I think this is one that looks best planted in clumps if
you can afford to be extravagant. It is also long-lived – our plant was one of the first we bought and
it is still thriving after nearly fifteen years.

I was intrigued to see a new variety – to me anyway – H. ‘Ivory Prince’. 'Ivory Prince' is a complex
hybrid with beautiful, dark blue-green foliage thick and ivory-white flowers that age to pink and
eventually green. It seems to be very vigorous and I am sure will quickly become a form favourite.

The showiest species is undoubtedly H. orientalis. I remember these well from my grandparents’
garden, where they grew in wilderness-like semi-shade, in a profusion of shades from greenish-
white, through to a sort of carmine pink, some of the flowers stained with deeper colours.

I wonder what my grandparents would say if they saw modern forms with their improved range of
colours and forms – I think they would hardly recognise them. There are now some very deep red,
almost block forms, and some that verge on gun metal grey, with the appearance of a bloom on the
blooms, so to speak.

I am very taken with bi-coloured flowers, and there are some fantastic seed raised varieties available
in this range. They generally have a ground colour that is white, light pink, or the chartreuse-like
colour Hellebore growers call yellow. The ground colour is enhanced by dark highlights, usually deep

Another form that I am taken with is the anemone centred form, with a little ruff of quill shaped
petals surrounding the stamen at the centre of the flower. When this is combined with a bicoloured
flower the effect is remarkable.

There are also many double forms available now, the doubling varying greatly from quite neat
rounded petals, to Raggedy Ann mish mashes of petals – very informal and not quite to my taste
although I can see how they would appeal to others.

All the above forms were on display at my local garden centre – as they are seed raised you really
need to see them in flower to ensure you are getting what you want. And they are not just valuable
for the garden – they perform very well when picked for the house, so useful at this time of the year
when the spring flush is still a month or two away. You’d go a long way to find more attractive long-
term perennials for the garden and house.