Friday, 31 December 2010

Sedum Spectabile (31 DEC 2010)

Sedum Spectabile seemed to appear out of nowhere as they were in parts of the garden that I wasn't bothering to water. In the summer they had jade succulent leaves with red tips and flowers which turned baby-pink in the autumn. They seemed overcrowded, stems growing out sideways with just a couple upright, so I split them and planted them temporarily in five more places to give away as presents. They adapted to their new locations so easily, then after the first frost in October, the leaves turned a luminous yellow and the flowers deepened in colour to mauve, eye-catching in the rain-sodden garden. In November, they started to dry out and camouflaged well amongst the fallen leaves and now little jade buds are poking out of the snow, completing the cycle. Quite symbolic for this time of year, in short, I love everything about this plant.

I got worried when the leaves started turning yellow because I've seen specimens in other people's front gardens which are still green. It occurred to me that I might have split the plants too late in the year and maybe the frost had damaged the roots in the disturbed soil.  
I looked on the internet for pictures of sedum in winter but couldn't find any. I'm at ease now that the buds have appeared, I guess mine is a herbaceous variety. The advantage of this herbaceous plant, unlike others like Bleeding Heart which disappear completely above ground, is that the dead stems and flower heads stay intact and have their own beauty, marking the spot where rebirth will take place.

According to wikipedia, Sedum Spectabile (of Crassulaceae family – stone crops) has now been reclassified as Hylotelephium Spectabile. I can't find an explanation why. The Latin plant names don't deter me because I studied Latin at secondary school. The other options were Italian or German (Latin seemed the easiest for someone who is terrible at accents). The teacher looked just like my image of a Roman wearing sandals, dresses like tunics and her passion for the subject was infectious, to me at least. When I read Latin scripts, I felt a powerful connection with ancient civilisations at a time when I felt a misfit in my own. After Latin O'level, I thought I'd never use Latin again, having said that, it was a long time ago, and so far I haven't been successful in trying to translate my plant names. Latin translators don't seem to recognise them so I've come to the conclusion that these are not vocabulary that would have been recognised in Ancient Rome.

As I suspected, I've just found an article which explains that scientific plant (& animal) names are "latinized" (usually derived from people's names these days or even a Greek word). I still don't think learning Latin was a complete waste of time, because my connection with the ancients remains and I plan to use my garden as a channel to the past .... and to the future.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Dwarf Flowering Quince (24 DEC 2010)

This photo was taken in the middle of December after the first snow had melted. I first found this shrub entwined with a prolific bramble bush growing its thorny stems in coils and rescued it from strangulation. It was the small, salmon pink-coloured buds that caught my eye when I was spring-weeding. If I remember correctly, it flowered before the spring bulbs this year. The sight of its flowers made me broody and prompted my trip to Wilkinsons to buy packets of seeds. Then in the summer I spotted two yellow, round growths without stems, fused directly onto the inner branches. I'd never seen anything like it, decided they were parasitic, maybe poisonous, and threw them away without cutting them open to look for seeds.

Like the winter jasmine & skimmia, this was another low-growing shrub which was inconspicuous during the summer months. Now it continues to flower despite the heavy second snowfall.  I classified it by accident when I was researching fruit trees …..The only fruiting plants I have in this garden are brambles, raspberry bushes and an immature fig. I fancied the idea of growing a quince tree because it was favoured in ancient times and there's a risk it could die out because it's not so popular now. According to wikipedia, it's believed that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was actually a quince not an apple. The Ancient Romans cooked with quinces and used them to perfume the air. Ancient Greeks offered them in wedding rituals because they were linked to Aphrodite and brides used them to freshen their breath. In modern Europe, the hard, astringent fruit need to be bletted by frost or cooked to enhance apple pies with their aroma or make preserves. Anyway, I was googling quince and saw photos of familiar salmon pink flowers on bare branches which turned out to belong to a close relative dwarf flowering quince (chaenomeles from the rosaceae family). I am now kicking myself that I didn't even sniff the yellow growths before throwing them away. I'm left here imagining the aroma and wondering how the scent & flavour of apple pie could possibly be enhanced.

According to the Plants for a Future website, true quince is "analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent and digestive and a decoction is used internally in the treatment of nausea, joint pains, cholera and associated cramps". However, it doesn't clarify if dwarf quince has the same medicinal properties - botanists originally classified dwarf quince as a pear, then as a quince, then finally as a pear again with its own genus : chaenomeles. According to my Reader's Digest Encyclopaedia, there are two main species Japonica (from Japan) and Speciosa (from China). Both, like true quince, are self-pollinating, the fruit is more astringent and contains more pectin (good for preserves) than true quince. Not sure which one mine is. Japonica - because it's less than 1m tall (but that might be my pruning) or Speciosa - because it grew dark green, glossy leaves in the summer after flowering. None of the literature mentions flowering in December or in the snow.

Chaenomeles can be grown from seeds or by dividing off suckers in the winter. It's popular for bonsai because it has small flowers in proportion to the stunted branches, which is going to be one of my xmas holiday projects. I'll pull off a sucker and plant it as an instant bonsai tree for a gardener in the next generation to enjoy the characteristic crookedness it will hopefully develop if the roots and branches are pruned correctly. I've never thought of my experiments with plants as being a legacy before, in fact, they could be my only useful contribution to the progress of Planet Earth.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Dicentra (19 DEC 2010)

It's snowing again, just when the plants had recovered from the previous fall. Maybe it's Mother Nature's way of warning me for getting complacent about the effect of the bitterly cold conditions on my plants. Here's cineraria silver dust and dicentra (from the same family as carnations) resilient in the first snow and still perky after the thaw. I found boxes of them sitting next to each other on the sick plant shelf at B&Q and I planted them together. I didn't  expect them to last past autumn. It's an example of how a spontaneous purchase and ten minutes soil preparation resulted in plants to enjoy for months afterwards. If only I had made more little efforts,  I'd have a garden full of plants by now. Not sure if they will survive this recent snowfall though. I knew it was coming on Friday because my bones were cold, then yesterday the snow was driving down so heavily and icily that it hurt my eyes and my lips froze. I passed a man on the street walking backwards and nearly followed suite. It didn't stop me going for a long walk in the snow, battling the elements. The higher forces were trying to communicate with me and I had no choice but to listen after ignoring them for so long.

I remember the first time I thought of planting something was when I was a teenager and the family apple tree at my mum's home was struck by lightning. It literally is a member of the family, I've eaten those apples stewed with crumble topping and custard, every autumn,  for as long as I can remember being alive. Luckily the tree survived the lightning strike but it occurred to me that I should plant some of the seeds to ensure that future generations (of humans & maggots) could taste these cherished apples. I thought about it but didn't actually do it. Last year, nearly thirty years later, the tree was burnt by some rogue workmen who my mum paid to install a new garden shed. They burnt the remains of the old shed under the apple tree. Half of it now looks dead, but this year the other half produced a bumper crop with less maggots than usual. In fact the fruiting was so abundant that a heavily laden branch partially broke and dropped down to the ground, (luckily … or Naturally) the apples continued to ripen.

For what it's worth, one of my New Year's Gardening Resolutions is to concentrate on small actions that will make an impact long-term rather than short-term, eg. to plant something new every week instead of fastidiously weeding my patio. Even in my life it seems that series of little efforts have connected to make the biggest differences, more effectively than making big plans (soon abandoned when there are no immediate results). In recognition of this, and trying not to focus on the thirty wasted years (of tree-growing at least), there are now three apple seeds planted in frozen compost in my plastic greenhouse.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Broccoli (10 DEC 2010)

This post started off in memory of my plants that perished in December 2010 ….. because last week we had a heavy snowfall and I thought that the romanesco broccoli and foxgloves that I had raised from seed had died, a bit like having a miscarriage after an eight month pregnancy. (Sorry if this comparison seems excessive but gardeners will understand.) I tried to come to terms with it by convincing myself that Mother Nature must have her reasons for sending bad weather, just like she sends slugs, snails and foxes to challenge me and test my commitment.

Then at the weekend the snow started to melt, the sun shone and the plants miraculously perked up. It was such a surprise and I was so happy, that I forgot all my worries for a moment. I'm not sure if it was the novelty of gardening that caused this reaction or the feeling that higher forces were on my side (or rather the plants' side).  I never believed in God before experimenting with plants, everything in my life could be controlled by negotiation, hard work, money or visiting the doctor. I still don't believe in God in the sense of a moral guide but I have been worshipping in the temple of Mother Nature recently (at least whispering a quiet plea every now and then).

To put a cherry on top of the icing …. I thought I'd check what happened to the snail that was living inside one of the broccoli plants. I hadn't flicked it off as I usually do with snails, don't know why, maybe because it was just a baby one. I couldn't find the snail so I looked deeper into the paling green leaves and found what looked like a tiny broccoli floret (or curd as some people call it). I didn't probe it too much because I didn't want to disturb it. Needless to say I was overjoyed. Thank-you MN.

After this minor success, I've started making plans for next winter - I'm visualising a garden full of brassicas and snow. Brassicas are iron-rich and I'm anaemic so there could be health benefits. My mother has cavalo nero (dark green Italian cabbage) growing in her garden. She started growing them to eat because they are so expensive to buy in the shops (if you can find them), they look so beautiful first emerging  out of the ground horizontally then growing upwards like mini palm trees. I sowed some seeds from her plants in the autumn, but the seed tray is now covered in moss in the plastic greenhouse. My new policy in the garden is not to give up on plants so easily because there are apparently higher forces at work, so I'll leave the seed tray as it is and see what happens.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Pieris (03 DEC 2010)

I inherited this variegated pieris in a pot. I didn't water it for over a year (my excuse was that I was concentrating on DIY jobs, but since being enlightened I now realise that no DIY job is more important than gardening), it relied on the elements alone for sustenance. Even when I started gardening this spring it wasn't my top priority, but when my seeds were sown and bulbs planted, I decided to take ownership and pay some attention to my adoptees. The pieris seemed constrained so I de-weeded a spot in a border, dug in some compost and transplanted it there, where it almost doubled in size over the summer growing fresh coral-coloured foliage. Its reward initially was regular watering and then a promotion to the central bed in the autumn where it produced showers of flowers like cream-coloured beads strung on pink stems. A gardener couldn't wish for more from a plant !

Last week we had heavy frosts and this week snow. I felt guilty when I saw some plants wrapped in fleece coats as I walked along peeping into other people's front gardens. I never used to be so nosey, but now it's normal practice to ask a complete stranger how they managed to get their marigolds to flower a month longer than mine, or where they bought an unusual plant. I haven't been told to mind my own business yet, in fact the snow seems to make people more chatty. I knew snow was expected, but I did nothing to protect my plants (in my defence, I didn't know there was such a thing as a plant coat till this week). The pieris seems to be surviving, however, the half-hardy plants are in varying degrees of suffering and it's especially sad to see my broccoli & foxgloves wilting before they have had a chance to flower. Most of the autumn seedlings (babies of the summer annuals) in the plastic sheet greenhouse have died except the sweet peas which still look perky even though I dropped them by accident two weeks ago and the soil has now iced.

Despite the icy conditions destroying my plants, I imagine that the snow is somehow sanitising my garden, though it wouldn't surprise me to discover that slugs & snails have evolved to survive temperatures below zero. They have made their mark on almost everything that I planted this year, but they haven't totally destroyed anything yet. I actually find the foxes or squirrels more annoying (not sure which because I haven't found them red-pawed yet). At first, I thought they were digging up the soil randomly but I'm beginning to think they are targeting & stealing my spring bulbs because in some cases I can't find bulbs in the dug up areas where I'm sure I planted them. I've heard that a sprinkling of chilli powder or a stocking filled with balls of rolled-up human hair deters foxes, which seems appropriate considering they make me so upset that I could pull my hair out.
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