Sunday, February 23, 2014

All the way from Chile, with bells on ...

Lapageria flowering in the manuka

Last week we were discussing gardening at work and the question came up about the best place to grow a Chilean Bell Flower climber, Lapageria rosea. It is an interesting question because ithe placement of this stunning plant does require careful consideration.
 Like many plants from Chile it is slightly frost tender, and if left outside on a normal fence it would soon succumb to our winters. But on the other hand, again like many of its Chilean kith and kin, it prefers a cool root run, so is not really all that suited to a northerly aspect. 
I have two plants growing intertwined – a white form and the more usual pink one – and they are happily growing up against the wall of our sleepout, on a south wall, along with some Chatham Island Forget-me-nots.  I added lots of compost and sand to the soil, so it is well drained but also has a high level of humus. 
The plants grow to the roofline each year, and each winter the frost nips them back a little.  Over the past few years they have also send some trailing branches out into the adjoining manuka and dwarf Camellia trees, but that is fine as their flowering seasons do not overlap, and it is a nice bonus to have the beautiful bells hanging from a slightly lower height.
I cannot think of a relatively easily grown climber that is as rewarding as the Chilean Bell Flower.  Mine has had intermittent flowers for the past couple of months and is now approaching the height of its season.  The white variety has flowers tinged with pink as it opens, but once fully extended has the most pristine of flowers.  The pink or rose forms, on the other hand, have waxy flowers of varying shades of pink, usually with white mottling on the inside, sometimes visible from the outside.
In the wild of Chile these plants were once harvested for their fruit, but they are now protected and are the national flower.  In the garden they are relatively easily grown, but they are difficult to propagate.  I have found the only reliable way is to grow them from seed, but it is a slow business.  They are not self-fertile, so two different clones are needed, and even then seed set is not reliable.  Once the seed is set it forms a small sausage like pod.  The seed should be sown as soon as it is ripe, as it germinates a lot better fresh than it does if it has been stored for a long time.  It takes a few years before the new plants flower.
If you have a cool spot on a south facing wall and want a special climber, you would do no better than get one of these from the garden centre.  Treat it carefully for the first year or so – slugs and snails love the fresh shoots in the spring and can quickly make a big mess of a small plant.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Wind flowers need rain

Late summer and early autumn is a great time for us bulb lovers.  The very first of the spring flowering bulbs have started arriving in the garden centres – the anemones and freesias usually – and catalogues start arriving filled with new daffodil varieties and a range of the rare and exotic for the connoisseur. 
But this time of the year is also exiting because a number of other bulbs start to come into their own – the summer deciduous ones.
We generally associate the trait of losing leaves over harsh growing times with deciduous shrubs and trees, the majority of which defoliate for the winter.  This is because they would otherwise be in water deficit – the cold soil means the trees cannot take up much water, while they would continue to lose water through transpiration if they still had leaves.
There are a few trees from hotter climates that do exactly the opposite – they drop all their leaves over the dry and hot summer, when again they would lose more water than they could take up.  Plants from the hotter areas of Africa tend to do this.
Bulbs are, in effect, deciduous too, except instead of dying back to a perennial or woody system, they defoliate entirely and survive in the form of swollen roots.  Most bulbs do this by growing over winter and early spring, flowering and setting seed in early summer, then dying down until the autumn rains arrive, when they start the process over again.
Others, though, do this differently, and they prefer to like dormant over spring and summer, then burst forth with their flowers in autumn, grow until the spring, then die down again for the summer.
My mother had a warm north-facing bed underneath her bedroom window which was filled with bulbs – lots of old fashioned freesias and muscari, but also big patches of three of these autumn flowering beauties.
The first of these was the clear white rain lily, Zephyranthes candida, also erroneously called an autumn crocus.  This is probably the hardiest member of its family, and is a reliable late summer flowering bulb, that reputedly flowers with the first of the autumn rains.  I am not so sure that the trigger is the arrival of rain, as I have grown this in one of the beds at the back of the section, and it has reliably flowered in late February/early March each year, despite receiving regular watering as I keep the rest of the bed alive.
The leaves are deep green and similar to thin daffodil leaves.  The flowers pop out of papery sheaths and are pure glistening white, about the size of a garden crocus.  It is a good garden plant without being extremely special.
Last year I noticed someone advertising some of the rare species and hybrids from the family on TradeMe, and took the chance to increase my meagre stock of these.  The four or five varieties I purchased are all tenderer than my garden stock so I grew them in pots in the glasshouse, thinking that I could also better control the water supply that way.
This week the first of them came out, and what a glorious surprise it was.  I have read about Z. grandiflora for years, and seen photographs of it in various books, but I had no concept of just how much bigger it was than Z. candida.
The 100mm flowers, which are a luscious pink, similar to the colour of belladonna lilies (to which they are quire closely related) are more open than Z. candida, and are held atop 100mm long scapes.  They are certainly more exuberant than their white-flowered counterparts, and a clump of them makes a fabulous sight.
There is now a range of hybrids that bulb fanciers can sometimes get access to, with yellow, orange and salmon forms all to be found, although none is readily available.  The related genus of Habranthus can also be found from specialist growers.  
By the way - you might actually call these rain lilies the true wind flowers, as that is what there botanical name means - Zephyr= wind, Anthes= flowers.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Springing the leeks

The long and unspectacular summer has spluttered on through the past week, with showers and almost wintry conditions prevailing for much of the time.  I went to a barbecue the other evening, and we almost managed to get through the meal before it started to rain lightly.  Fortunately we were underneath  sun umbrellas  - hardly needed for sun though – and were able to stay outside for a while.
At one stage the conversation turned to planting winter vegetables and someone suggested leeks would be good to pop in now. I was a bit surprised as I always think leeks should  be planted before Christmas, especially if you are keen to grow the large leeks we are accustomed to.
My friend, though,  said she always planted later, and that she didn’t mind if they were a bit smaller than usual, as she likes the small sweet leeks that come from a later planting.  That made me think a bit, not least because I had not planted any leeks in the early summer.  So this weekend I got a bundle of field grown leeks and popped them into the garden.
Ideally leeks should go into ground that has previously been used for a fruit crop (tomatoes, capsicums, egg plants) but I am a bit short on space at the moment and I had to plant them in land I had just harvested my crop of Elephant Garlic.  I refertilised the soil because leeks and Elephant Garlic (larger and milder than usual garlic) are actually variants of the same species and I probably should have chosen a different site – except this is perfect for leeks.
I did the usual stuff for leeks – creating a small hole for the seedlings – about 20cm deep – and carefully planting the leeks into the holes.  They were well watered in, and as time goes on the hole will naturally fill itself in, ensuring the bottom portion of the leek will be white when it is harvested.
You can make a ridge about the same height, and then plant the seedlings in a trough along the top of the ridge, gradually filling it in as the plants start to grow, and that will have the same effect.
The good thing about leeks is that they are pretty much fool proof, and as such are great for the new gardener, who is probably a little unsure about what to do with the garden over winter.  We have never had any disease problems with leeks, and as long as you make sure you keep on feeding them they will grow for a few months yet.  Make sure you harvest them before the spring of course, as they will develop a woody stem as they start to put up their flower heads.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Whipping the hebes

Among the many native plants I am fond of, the vast collection of flowering shrubs that make up the genus Hebe come top of the list.  This remarkably diverse group of nearly exclusively New Zealand shrubby equivalents of the Northern Hemisphere veronicas has evolved into a wide range of plants in Aotearoa, and fills many ecological niches in our environment.  Through in the works of hundreds of years of plant breeding and you have a valuable range of plants suitable for most gardens in one way or another.
In the heights of the mountains a particularly odd-looking group of hebes grow, with leaves almost completely absent.  These are the whipcord hebes, now known by botanists as  Leonohebe but for our purposes they can remain hebes.  Perhaps the best k own of these is the South Island species known as H. cupressioides.   Those of you familiar with Latin will know that this means “like a Cypress”, and there could hardly be a more apt description.
In a case of similar adaption to the same environmental conditions, this hebe has evolved the same tiny, adpressed leaves that conifers that live in the sub-alpine conditions that these plants live, and has ended up looking just like them rather than the closely related hebes that grow nearby.
The very small leaves – almost scale-like- grow tightly around the stems until the casual observer would not think the plant had any leaves.  This is, of course, the same adaption that the conifers have made to avoid losing too much moisture in the dessicating winds that blow almost incessantly in the mountains.
Unlike the conifers though, these plants have a wonderful show of flowers when the conditions are right. The white or light blue flowers are held at the end of the upright stems and when the season is right, can completely smother the tops of the shrubs in a haze of colour.  It seems to me that these flowers are carried with more abandon in cooler areas, and the plant does not often flower abundantly this far north, but this is still a plant well worth growing.