Ewen's garden

A collection of columns, paintings and photographs about gardening on an offshore island in New Zealand.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Garden surprise

Imagine my surprise, when ambling around my garden, I discovered a hibiscus, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Phsyco’ flaunting its first bloom. I bought this hibiscus during the winter from a nursery specialising in subtropical plants from up north. This hibiscus was just one of a few plants ordered via the internet. This said hibiscus is bright red, with reflexed petals, frilled at the edge and a rather languid stigma dropping from the centre with attendant stamens at its end. I have to say it was the first time in quite awhile I have ‘done a turn about the garden’.
After a season of outside distractions, the garden is well in need of a general over-haul. Everywhere plants are at the end of their useful or even reproductive cycles. Loppers, secateurs and possibly the hand-saw will be necessary to effect the improvements required now! This appears to be an annual event in my garden, as those in the northern hemisphere clean up and restore their gardens in the winter; I do this in mid summer. I have stopped watering, mostly, but still we are harvesting tomatoes amongst the fallen broccoli and drying beans. There is at least one advantage to this approach, if somewhat unconventional, and that is the spent flower heads spread seeds about the place, which in spring will emerge in places you never expect. Where they are in the wrong place all that is necessary, is to pull them out, easy. A confession is probably required at this point, I use pea straw as a mulch along with compost. This is put about the place in the spring, after the soil has warmed up and before the soil is dried out. If weren’t for this approach do gardening, I would either be spending a fortune on buying water, pr my garden would simple turn into an arid dusty wasteland, fit only for the most drought tolerant of plants.
With this in mind, my choice of plants outside of the vegetable garden has been towards those which are going to most likely be tolerant of drought. As for my predilection for ‘wet subtropicals’, those with a bent for much moisture and a rich soil, they go over the septic field. Here I have just picked a large bunch of bananas, I will have to be cooking banana cake and flambéing them to eat with pancakes! These bananas are particularly sweet and tasty. This particular banana is from the mountains of Samoa, called Missi luki, and forms quite a tall tree. Once the tree has fruited it collapses, as this one has done, helped along the way by the stormy spring weather we had. It helps to keep the remaining clump to not more than five stems. In this way the available food from the soil is not divided among too many plants and a better crop is secured.
Elsewhere, succulents planted during the winter are now establishing themselves well and will soon fill out a pallet of plants growing close enough to not let too many weeds hold sway, this is the plan anyway!

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Life in the subtropics

So it would appear summer has arrived with sunny days and soaring humidity, just the weather wet subtropical plants relish. Putting on a particularly good display at present is the shell ginger, Alpinia zerumbet syn. A. nutans and A. speciosa. The genus is named for and Italian botanist Prosper Alpino, (1553-1616), and consists of some 150 species found throughout south and eastern Asia. While the common name says ginger, it is not a weed. My plant while the stems have reached to about 2.5m the base clump is still only about 50cm across after four years. The stems are long (up to 2.5m) and support glossy green lancelet leaves. The flower buds emerge from the tips of these stems in bunches of fat white buds tipped in pink that hang gracefully down like some exotic jewellery. As the buds open they reveal a spectacular flower petal coloured red in the centre and merging into yellow on the outside. The flower does not have a scent, but is so eye catching it doesn’t matter. Mine leans and weeps its blooms over the top side of the driveway where visitors encounter the beauty of the flowers at eye level.
The shell ginger is not the only ginger worthy of mention. Here I should state and name the two gingers of concern to the environment, weeds in other words. Firstly is the kahili ginger Hedychium gardnerianum and yellow ginger H. flava. These two species are from a genus of some 40 species, spread through south and east Asia and one on Madagascar. These two problem species are so mostly because of their ability to set large amounts of seed and also spread by means of stolons, underground stems, similar to running bamboo. I do remember Mum growing kahili ginger on the farm in the Wairarapa. It had a tough time here on account of the climate, and so we did get to enjoy the heady perfume of the flowers by the front gate. I would be hesitant planting it anywhere now, as the weather seems to be getting ever warmer and unpredictable. There are three others in this genus worth a mention, white ginger H. coronarium with white highly scented flowers, red ginger H. coccineum naturally with red flowers and H. greenii with orange blooms. Of these I have H. coccineum and H. greenii, neither of which do terribly well, I suspect this to be on account of there not being enough moisture for them.
Another genus to fall under the banner of ginger is Heliconia. The most commonly grown of this genus is H. subulata, a native of Central America. The foliage is reminiscent of banana, but on much shorter stems, only up to a couple of metres when grown in good rich moist soil. Mine unfortunately get thrashed in the westerlies that belt up the driveway in the spring making the leaves look a little tatty. Still the reward of the flowers at this time of year makes it worth while. The blooms emerge as red spikes which open out to reveal yellow petals. Many of the species are too cold tender to grow here, a pity, as they also make wonderful cut flowers lasting for weeks in water.
Flowering also at the moment along side these gingers is pink datura, Brugmansia suavelons ‘Noels blush’, named for the great Whitford gardener, the late Noel Scotting. The flowers are like large trumpets hanging below a canopy of felt textured leaves. In the evening the flowers have a heady perfume, which may not be some people’s liking. Be wary of planting next to a bedroom window as it is said the plant is an hallucinogenic, but whether this is carried merely on the scent of the flowers I don’t know. The shrub needs to be lightly pruned after flowering to keep it fresh and youthful, if only we could do the same!

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Seeds of a new year

Well the Christmas tree is dead, the hang-over is gone and the Christmas lilies, Lilium longiflorum and L. regale have finished flowering. These lilies I will leave for the seed pods to ripen so I can save the seeds to give away to others. Last year I did this, but even so, some of the seeds still managed to escape and germinate themselves in the cracks in the deck. All this goes to show is they are easy to propagate.
Other seeds I saved were bean seeds, the fruits of which are now being enjoyed at our table! The runner beans I left from last season have sprung back into life and are producing a fine crop. We are also getting a few tomatoes now as well. All this and not one drop of water has been poured onto the garden. The pea straw I put around the vegetables as mulch seems to have paid off, although the weather probably has a good deal to do with this! Still the soil appears to be much more moist and not as hot as it would be without the mulch. The only problem I can see, and one I didn’t expect, was with the strawberries. They have been woeful in their crop. All leaves and little fruit, I suspect the nitrogen content of the pea straw is to blame. The nitrogen rich mulch has encouraged the plants to produce masses of lush healthy green leaves and not so much the sweet wee berries cherished for the weekend pancakes! The answer is to provide a bit of pot ash, this will encourage the plants to flower. I have some ashes from the old fire should do the trick. It is still not too late to achieve a late summer crop of strawberries, mmmmmm! Other crops coming on include corn, I imagine a couple more weeks yet for them. Also, a bit behind schedule, are the capsicum, but he sugarsnap peas have been great.
I hope everyone has had a great holiday and looking forward to a healthy and prosperous New Year!