Sunday, October 30, 2011

In the garden this weekend

This weekend felt like it might have been the first of the summer-like days – mild temperatures, light breezes and no rain for the first time in ages. I spent most of it in the garden, doing a wide variety of chores.   Primary among those was working among my Pacific Coast Iris seedlings, recording the blooms as they opened, selecting those that will live to see another day and removing those destined for the compost heap, and making new crosses.  Each year I plant about 300 seedlings and about ten will make it through to flower the second time, so it is a slightly upsetting process, but one that most be carried out – we already have far too many irises around here and if I did not cull out rigorously we would have tens of thousands.
I did manage to get a bit of time in the vegetable garden too, getting my tomatoes in the ground.  I know many of you will have put yours in last weekend, but I like to let the ground warm up a little more before I plant mine out.  I bought some advanced grade F1 hybrids a week or two back and grew them on in the glasshouse to make them even bigger – it is the early crop that makes the difference when growing tomatoes at home.
I had prepared the soil well by digging in some extra compost and also boosting the soil with fertiliser.  I placed the stakes in the ground before planting, and then dug some holes a little bigger than the bags the plants were growing in.  This allowed me to plant each tomato slightly deeper than it had been in the bag – the theory is that tomatoes planted slightly too deep will form roots from the exposed stem.  If you chose to do this, remember not to plant deeper that the first leaves.
I also bought some basil plants when I got the tomatoes, but these will stay in the glasshouse for a few weeks yet, as basil needs the soil to be even warmer than tomatoes before it will establish well. I usually grow a few plants of the normal sweet basil, but I prefer the more interesting flavour of the spicy globe variety.  This has smaller leaves – it makes a neat little bush and could be used as an edging if you were looking for one for the vegetable plot over summer.  If you prefer more pungent types you should probably go for Thai basil, which is commonly used in Asian cuisine and has a star anise overtone.  There is also a nice lemon scented variety which has a strong citrus fragrance.
All basils prefer moist conditions in as warm a spot as you can provide.  If you want to see basil growing very fast and with succulent leaves try popping a few in a tunnel house or in the glasshouse.  It grows like a weed, but retains that wonderful pungent flavour.  In the garden, a warm spot with lots of water and lots of food will suit them well – I grown them among the tomatoes, where they get a bit of shade at the height of the day.  Later in the season they can look a bit tatty, so I just cut them back (use the leaves for a pesto that you can keep) and give some extra fertiliser, and the plants soon bounce away again.
If you are new to gardening and have constructed a box-like structure for growing your vegetables, you can probably plant your basil straight away.  These elevated gardens will warm up a lot quicker than garden soil, and will be ready for planting a week or two earlier than most open gardens.  You should already have good crops of lettuces and other summer salad greens underway.  Don’t forget to try one or two other leaves for your salad greens – young beet leaves are tender and luscious, and mizuna and rocket leaves provide a lovely sharper taste. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

I nearly got the blues!

Last week I wrote about an All Black garden – and for a while this weekend I thought I was going to have to describe a garden full of the blues – “Les Blues” certainly had this gardener’s heart in his mouth for far too many minutes on Sunday evening!
Actually, a blue garden would not be a bad thing, but there are blues and blues, so you would need to be careful about which ones you mixed in, keeping the pink blues away from the true blues.  When the Head Gardener and I first established our combined garden last century we fairly quickly came to the conclusion that it might be a good idea if we had our own separate parts of the garden.  I had lived on my own for a while, and had discovered a passion for gardening and wanted a different sort of garden to her.  One of her first gardens was a blue and yellow creation.
I was thinking about that the other day, when my neighbour popped her head through the hedge that divides our gardens, grasping a flower in her hand, asking what it was.  She thought it might be a member of the bluebell family, but it looked unlike most bluebells she had seen.
She was right – it is a bluebell, one with one of the funniest botanical mix ups you can imagine.  When Carl Linnaeus, the man who invented the binomial system of botanical naming, was first shown this bluebell, he asked where it had come from.  He was told it had come from Spanish ship called the Peru, so he called it Scilla peruviana, and for the next 350 years people have assumed it comes from South America.  It is actually a wild plant of Spain and Portugal, glorying under the “official” common name of Portuguese Squill, although it is also called the Hyacinth of Peru, Peruvian Scilla, or Cuban Lily.
It is a clump forming bulb which tries to retain some leaves over winter, and in the spring slowly pushed up strong racemes of purple blue flowers in late spring.  It is very hardy and is a great plant for the front of the border.  It can also be naturalised but it is not easily come by in the trade so you might need to look around for it.
I saw masses of it last week, as I wandered around Napier’s hillside cemetery one warm evening.  As well as the more common blue form there were also some clumps of the white form, which probably stood out as bit better in the evening light.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

It must be because it is spring, and because of the heroic exploits of a certain rugby football team, but I have been thinking about an all black garden again.  You might recall that I planted one a few years ago, but became disenchanted with it and removed it.  I would not want to plant a garden with only black foliaged plants again, because it looks very flat and is not very appealing.
But I do think very dark coloured flowers have a place in the summer garden, as they provide a good contrast to the happier and brighter colours we associate with the hot season, and they often proved a textural contrast as well, as many of them have velvety flowers.

A couple of weeks ago I saw for the first time, the black petunia that everyone has been talking about, and I was impressed with its “blackness”.  Often colour break are nowhere near as good as they are trumpeted to be – think “blue” roses and “red’ irises for example, but in this case, ‘Black Velvet’ lives up to its name.  It is black, and it is velvety.

It was bred by flower breeder Jianping Ren for the Ball Colegrave Company, using old fashioned hand pollination and selection – no genetic modification here.  She has come up with a stunning addition to the range of plants available for summer colour, and I am already thinking about how I might use it in my garden.
I have a new perennial border with lots of space in it – the plants were only planted a couple of months ago and I had always intended to plant a lot of annuals in the bed this year.  I am wondering whether light green flowers might go well with deep velvety colour – perhaps the cool lime green Nicotiana variety called –wait for it – ‘Lime Green’.  This is a cousin of the petunia, from the same part of the world, and likes similar conditions so it should do well alongside ‘Black Velvet’.  They have similar shaped flowers though, so it might be better to introduce a bit of contrast, and maybe go for the chartreuse green of Zinnia ‘Envy’.  This has semi-double dahlia-shaped flowers and will look spectacular alongside the petunia, or even better, behind it, as it grows a little taller.
Of course, I could go for the opposite effect, and try and plant some white flowers alongside the petunia.   It is not a very subtle idea, but then who said I was subtle?  I was thinking I might put some of a new Arenaria montana ‘Avalanche’ in the front of the bed.  This is a new and improved form of a cousin to the garden pinks.  It grows flat along the ground and in spring and early summer has an – dare I say it? – avalanche of starry white flowers spilling over the ground.  It has attractive green-grey foliage (not unlike a Dianthus actually) and even when not in flower would make a good foil for the petunia.
Or how about a soft pink like the delicious looking Diascia ‘Strawberry Splash’?  This is one of the newer hybrid Diascias (cousins to the perennial Nemesias) and has delicate soft pink flowers which keep coming and coming all over the summer, especially if the plants are trimmed back occasionally.  I have a soft spot for these slightly tender South African perennials, as growing some of them set me off on my nursery-owning career, and they are perfect plants for the home garden, as they are hardy, can cope with a bit of dry if you forget to water them for a day or two, and they just keep on flowering.  There are brighter colours around – some very bright in fact – so you might prefer one of them, but the contrast with the black makes me plump for ‘Strawberry Splash’.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Little Aussie orchids

Whenever I am asked what my favourite flower is, I have a choice of two answers.  The first and strictly speaking the more correct answer is to reply “Irises”.  They were plants I was brought up with and they remain my most favoured flower, at least partly because of the long flowering season and their relative ease of cultivation.
The other answer I give is also nearly true – “Whatever is in flower at the moment.”  Right now I am just getting over loving daffodils, and I still have a passion for tulips.  In the weeks ahead I will fall in love with flowering cherries all over again, and when the irises finish I will reconnect with roses.
But this weekend my favourite flowers will be orchids, in all their glorious variety, because the Wairarapa Orchid Circle are holding their annual show in the Town Hall, and I will once again be enamoured of this most sophisticated of all flowers.
One of the things I love about orchids is the huge range of flower and plant types, and the way there seems to be something that will suit most gardeners, from those who love big, bold, brassy flowers, through to those whose interest is in the tiny gems of the plant world.  There are wonderfully scented varieties, some with the most garish colours imaginable, and others with white flowers pure en ought to make the most avid “white garden” fan swoon.
In my glasshouse I have a little collection of Australian Dendrobium hybrids and I am watching their buds expand at the moment.   There are a lot of different species which basically fall into two groups, those that grow best in the cool and those that prefer warmer temperatures.  Because my glasshouse is unheated and also houses a lot of different kinds of plants I have restricted myself to cool growing forms, which tend to be smaller flowering but more robust.  They are often forms of D. kingianum, an eastern Australia native, usually found growing on rocks and known to locals as the Pink Rock Orchid. It is generally a small plant which produces stems of light pink to dark purple flowers held on long inflorescences above the plant. There are white varieties and a few spotted and variegated varieties, and some bicoloured forms too.  My plants are growing in orchid mix in quite small pots, and they are flourishing, but I absolutely drool when I see the large clumps that I see in the annual show – huge plants with hundreds of flower stems holding shimmering butterflies of flowers.
These attractive little flowers do not take a lot of care – they cannot if I can look after them.  They are watered every couple of days and given the occasional feed of dilute fertiliser in spring and summer, but apart from that get no special treatment.  They do not need to be grown in a glasshouse either – they will flourish in any cool frost-protected area, such as a porch or a patio as long as they get enough dappled light.