Sunday, December 30, 2012

Day lilies

At this time of the year our garden suffers a little from “Yellow Fever”.  I do not mean that the Head Gardener and I take copious weekends off and head over to Wellington to watch the Phoenix soccer team (although we do that occasionally) .  No, what I mean is that yellow starts to dominate the flowers in the garden, with many brightly coloured perennials coming to the fore.
Primary among these are the delightful day lilies, Hemerocallis, one of the most popular of all perennials in the United States, yet somehow neglected in this country.
Both the common name and the Latin name refer to the flowers’ ephemeral life span – literally here today gone tomorrow for these guys.  Hemero is Greek for “one day”, while “callis” means beautiful, so when the great plant classifier Carl Linnaeus was looking for an appropriate name for the genus in 1753 he hit on Hemerocallis.
Originally found in the wild in China, these plants have been hybridised for many years now and a wide range of plant forms and colours is available, although it has to be said that the yellow and orange shades probably still predominate.  Many gardeners have been familiar with the old thin-petalled yellow flowered varieties and are rather surprised when they see more modern forms, with their deeper colours, stronger texture, and much wider range of colours.  We grow a number of yellow and reddish forms, as well as one lovely deep mahogany variety, which we planted in our dark coloured border.
Daylilies are very hardy and will cope with anything the weather will throw at them in Wairarapa – they will bounce back from cold very well and will cope with drought reasonably well too, although they do like the occasional drink during the heat of summer.
There are two different growth habits among modern daylilies – some go completely dormant in winter, the leaves dying off completely for the colder months, while others remain evergreen right through the year.  I grow both forms and have to say the dormant forms are probably tidier in the garden as their dead leaves are removed as part of the usual autumn tidy up, whereas some of the evergreen varieties mainly shed their dead leaves in the following spring, and you can end up with a plant covered in flowers, but also with dead and dying leaves in the middle of the clump.  It probably pays to check which form any variety you buy is
Although day lilies will grow quite happily in most soil types, they do best in well fertilised, well drained light-ish soil.  We have some growing in quite stiff clay and although they are growing alright, they do not compare to those growing in better soil.  You can also grow these summer beauties in large containers, using a robust container mix.  If you do not have any, you could make up a variety of the old John Innes mix – equal parts of good garden loam, peat moss (or composted bark) and well rotted animal manure.
Day lilies are true long-lived perennials, with fibrous roots are varying from thin to fleshy and tuberous, extending from the crown, which is also where the leaves and flowers emerge.  They are very easy to divide and increase – just find where the fans are connected at the crown of the plant and carefully cut or pry them apart. You will find that some of fans are not properly connected and you will only need to disentangle their roots.  Try to be very careful when undertaking division because even though snapping some of the roots is very hard to prevent , it is important to keep as much of the roots as possible. If a fan snaps off of the crown without any roots you are doomed ­– the leaves will not grow new roots.   These are vigorous plants, so when replanting make sure you leave enough room around them for their expansion!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A new year's gardening and blogging

What with two books published in the past month, things have been a bit hectic here, and the blog has been suffering - so it is time to start all over!

There is a strange period in the vegetable garden around the New Year, as the first crop of vegetables and fruit, so carefully tended and carried through to provide special treats (new peas, new potatoes, strawberries and raspberries) for the Christmas table, has been harvested and there is a little lull.  It is time, though to start thinking and planning for the cooler winter months ahead, as well as continuing the succession of summer plantings.
I know it seems decidedly odd to be thinking of the dreary months that stretch out after May, but if you do not get under way with winter crops, there will not be a long enough season left for the plants to come to maturity.  In fact, it is probably a little late for some of these crops already, but we will push on and get these under way anyway.
The basic tenet we are working on is that most vegetable plants will stop growing over the winter.  If you have planted later in the season the crops will not have had long enough to mature into full size, and they will go into a holding pattern.  Once spring comes and the growing conditions improve, they will think it is time to flower and they will “bolt”, rendering them useless. 
Planting now (and keeping the newly planted seedlings moist) gives the plants the opportunity to take advantage of the extended growing season, when temperatures are at the most conducive for good growth.   It also means most will be approaching maturity when the temperatures start to fall in late autumn/early winter, and the colder conditions will hold them in a good state for months, enabling a protracted harvest.
One crop that needs to go in soon is a good supply of that winter staple, leeks.  I was thinking about these valuable vegetables the other day, out at ‘Brancepeth’ when we launched a book I co-authored with Alex Hedley about the Beetham family and their remarkable collection of buildings at ‘Brancepeth’.  There used to be very extensive kitchen gardens in years gone by, and I fondly recall the late Hugh Beetham coming in every year and buying multiple bundles of leeks for planting.
Nowadays it is not so easy to find field-grown leek seedlings – most of us have to be content with punnet-grown supplies – but if you can find plants that have been sown in the open ground it is far better to plant these.  They will be much thicker and more robust than punnet grown types which are usually drawn up and thin.  You could consider twice-planting these punnet-grown leeks if you have the space and time.  Just plant them out in small clumps in a nursery bed until they have grown on and made a bit of thickness, then plant them into their final spot.
Leeks like lots of humus in the spoil, so work some well-rotted animal manure (chicken pooh is great!) or humus-rich compost into the soil, working it in well.   If your plants are robust enough to be planted out now, trim the top of the leaves off, keeping about 50mm.  Plant by using a dibbler to make a hole into the well-prepared soil, and then drop one leek into each of the holes, which should be about 125 mm apart.  The best way to plant is to keep all of the bottom part of the leek in the hole, with just the 50mm of foliage showing, then just squeeze the top of the hole to keep the leek upright position – do not fill the hole – and water in very well.  Obviously you should keep the plants well-watered until the autumn rains arrive.