Sunday, 28 November 2010

Skimmia (28 NOV 2010)

It took a bit of research to classify this shrub. I started by googling "photos of plants with red berries". The closest photo was gaultheria (wintergreen, teaberry) which, I was delighted to read, is a minty flavouring for ice-cream and chewing gum. It belongs to the ericaceae family (cranberry, blueberry, heathers & rhododendron are grouped under the same umbrella). However, there was a slight doubt in my mind because other pictures of gaultheria seemed to have racemes of flowers whereas my shrub has buds bunched close to the leaves.

I convinced myself that the only way to confirm the species was to chew a leaf. It had a strong medicinal taste and left a burning sensation on my tongue. After that I bit off a very tiny bit of berry but couldn't taste anything after the leaf, so I gave up on that trail and googled plants with red berries again. The next closest match was skimmia japonica, all parts of which "produce a pungent odour when crushed" and could "cause a stomach upset if ingested". Other pictures of skimmia showed varieties where the leaves, buds and berries seemed identical. However, male and female varieties were mentioned, the female shrubs only producing berries if a male is planted nearby, whereas my shrub stands alone. Looking up more articles, I discovered a self-fertilising  (monoecious) subspecies called reevsiana. A perfect match.

Therefore, I classified this shrub as skimmia japonica reevsiana. It, along with citrus fruit bearing plants, belongs to the family rutaceae. I had hardly noticed this evergreen shrub with its long-lasting flowers, berries and buds until now because it lay close to the ground next to an attention-seeking camellia bush. I decided to move it to my new central flower bed so it would have a more prominent position. As I dug it up, I noticed a white label sticking out - it read "skimmia ....". Maybe I'll check for labels before tasting next time.

On the subject of Experiments with Plants, this was not my original title for this blog. It was going to be Born-Again-Gardener (hence my profile name b-a-g) due to my renewed interest, however when I checked just in case anyone else happened to have the same idea, I found over 4000 entries. Every other title I could think of had already been used. In the end, I gave up trying to think of a unique title and settled to tell it like it is, which leaves me wondering : What can I possibly write about gardening which hasn't already been written? On the other hand, it's nice to know that there are so many like-minded people out there with similar thoughts, who share the same passion. All of the gardening blogs that I have read convey the message that gardeners are lovely people and I'm proud to be in their fellowship.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Winter Jasmine (20 NOV 2010)


I inherited a number of shrubs from the previous property-owner, Dorothy. I only met her twice when I viewed the house. As this was my first venture into house-buying, I had various anxieties but her calm approach to the process put me at ease. Even though many houses satisfied the short list of criteria in my head, there were criteria in my heart which were more difficult to define clearly. Apart from the usual considerations, the view of Dorothy's back garden from her dining room and the connection I felt with her were major contributors to my final decision to buy. The garden was neat and tidy though she admitted she hadn't been able to give it much attention in recent years due to her arthritis.

One of my favourite books as a child was The Secret Garden and I now I have my own. The weedy, paved front area can hold two cars. Initially there were two stone pots planted with spring bulbs parked there. I emptied and moved them to the back because I wanted the front to be bare, not giving a clue that the house with a cracked fascade was owned by a gardener. I can't remember the exact day when I started calling myself a gardener, maybe it was in me all along just waiting for a garden to need me. It was tempting to buy new plants to fill the beds and create an impressive display, but that would have been too easy. Instead, the back garden is a work-in-progress of my experiments with plants.

I relished the challenge of resurrecting the neglected garden. I decided to keep the original structure, the broken fish-shaped bird bath and all the plants that Dorothy left me. Last year I just weeded around them and dealt with the wisteria strangling the cherry blossom, which I didn't detect until I saw lilac flowers cascading down from the cherry blossom branches. I hacked back the wisteria so hard that I thought I had killed it. It only produced one stem of flowers this year but at least it's still alive and now under control. This year I started pruning, dividing and re-positioning plants to distribute them more evenly depending on their size and seasonality. I can't believe how forgiving they are, there hasn't been a casualty yet, including this plant which I have classified as winter jasmine. Looking up photos of yellow-flowered plants on the internet, this is the closest comparison based on the flowering time, colour, shape, number of petals and the shape of the bush. I pruned it back severely in the summer because it didn't seem that interesting, I wanted to make room for the annuals and its haphazard stems were getting in the way. Little did I know that it would be one of the few plants in flower at this time of the year. Like many of Dorothy's shrubs, the core of this bush is dead wood. I'm currently investigating which plants can be cut down completely to remove the dead wood and allow them to be born again.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Foxgloves (13 NOV 10)

I can't think of a scenario when I planned an event at least 15months before its due date. Back in March, I grabbed a packet of foxgloves seeds without much thought in a 3for2 offer when I bought pot marigold and thyme seeds to germinate in my kitchen. If I had taken time to read about biennials on the back of the packet, I would have probably chosen something else because I didn't have the patience to wait for flowers next year.

At that time, I was under the impression that small seeds would have a greater failure rate compared to large seeds. That's why I planted one marigold seed each and pinches each of thyme & foxgloves seeds in the cavities of three seed trays.

The pot marigold seedlings grew quickly and I planted them outside to fend for themselves within 6 weeks. On the other hand, the thyme and foxgloves germinated easily and then stopped growing due to overcrowding I suppose. As the seedlings were too delicate to split apart, I had to keep re-planting them in bunches until I could handle them singly. This procedure killed a few hundred of them. I eventually planted the thyme in two pots of ten. I kept one pot and gave the other to Mrs F.  When the weather warmed up I left my pot outside but was rather upset the next day to find that all the plants had been dug out. Only one plant had enough soil clinging to it to survive and it's now a mini-bush.

It was similar story with the foxgloves except that the leaves were more delicate so I kept them indoors till June. By then I had trayfuls of these seedlings in damp soil on my kitchen counter and it was becoming unhygienic. I planted ten in my garden, gave some away (people weren't really interested when I informed them that they wouldn't flower till next year) and with great regret threw the rest into my garden waste bag.

The foxgloves' rosettes of arching leaves are now huge (compared to the tiny seeds anyway) and are competing with the broccoli to win the award for most handsome plants in my autumn garden. Surprisingly, the slugs & snails don't find them so attractive. They seem to hold so much promise (not just of the flowers they may produce) and I can't explain the feeling of anticipation when I look at them.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Broccoli (07 NOV 2010)

I once watched a repeat of Geoff Hamilton's Ornamental Kitchen Garden TV program, it was like I had discovered a kindred spirit. I was disappointed to find out that he had died. His philosophy was to grow vegetables organically amongst flowering plants. This confuses pests apparently.

I didn't intend to become an organic gardener. When I started in March, bought a bottle of fertiliser when I went shopping for compost. Never used it because it didn't feel like the right thing to do. The plants are growing fine without it so far as the garden hasn't been fully functional. Probably need to enrich the soil somehow next year though. Now that the leaves are falling, it seems sensible to return their goodness back to the soil rather than throw them away.

Geoff advised a pond of frogs would keep the snail & slug population under control. I haven't started digging a pond yet but I did plant romanesco broccoli amongst my flowers in the summer. Since the annuals died, the broccoli have flourished and now they are the highlights of the garden. Even though they keep getting attacked by slugs, snails and birds (assuming that slugs & snails aren't capable of ripping leaves to shreds), they continue to thrive. I keep checking for the conical-shaped florets because I am curious to see how they form - only found a baby snail so far. Broccoli is sometimes called winter cauliflower so maybe there's hope yet.

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