Wednesday 28 January 2015

Yes, we have no bananas...

It may be icy outside, but in the new year, a gardener's thoughts turn to propagation. It's too early to start lots of things, because, although I could easily get them to germinate in a heated propagator, I haven't got enough windowsills to stop all the young seedlings going bendy through lack of light.
The urge to nurture and poke about in compost is growing daily, though, and I have been casting about for something which I can germinate so early in the year. I know I could get chillies or aubergines going, or any of the other things which take an age to mature, before they begin to produce something edible, but I can't get very excited about them. I want to try something exciting.

For some reason which I am now quite unable to remember, we decided to open our garden for the NGS (Yellow Book) scheme again, in June this year. I am already filled with a growing sense of terror, and in my head, the clock has already started counting down to 11am, 21st June, when we open the gates.  I feel an urgent need to grow something large, impressive and easy to fill all the big gaps in one fell swoop.

Initially, growing banana plants from seeds seemed to tick all the boxes. My thinking was that they would benefit from being started early, and, once germinated, they would all fit comfortably on the window sill. Once the cold weather is behind us, they could move out to the greenhouse, before being planted out in the garden at the beginning of June. I was hoping that by that time, the banana plants would be a fair size and make an impact in the garden. That was the theory, but things may prove very different in reality .

We already have some largish banana plants which we are overwintering in the conservatory, and so far, they are coping well with the conditions. We give them some heat when temperatures drop outside, and we keep them almost dry. They are wonderful plants in the sub tropical garden and add to the lush feel of the foliage, due to their massive leaves. Everyone says that banana plants grow extremely rapidly, but, to be honest, ours have shown quite steady growth so far. We have Musa Basjoo, which is, I believe, the banana of choice for most uk gardens. It is relatively hardy, as the stem is hardy down to minus 6 degrees, whilst the root can survive to minus fifteen (with a heavy mulch) so that even if all top growth is killed off by frost, the root will survive and put out new growth in the spring. We also have Ensete Maurelii, which has gorgeous red leaves, but is not very hardy so needs a little coddling through the colder months.

I have attempted to grow banana seeds before, but with little success. I do have a dim memory of  one seed germinating, but it died off quite quickly and never really got established. So, although growing banana plants from seed is not exactly a new experience, it is a challenge, which, in truth , is more exacting than I first thought.

Blogs are a fantastic source of shared knowledge and expertise, and I am constantly learning as I hop around the globe from blog to blog but Facebook is just as useful, and it is far too easy to dismiss it as just a social media site. I have been a member of the 'Hardy Tropicals uk' Facebook page for quite a while now, but have been as quiet as a little mouse, just reading and learning from the posts. I decided, however, to enlist the advice of its members about the best bananas to grow from seed, and they did not disappoint! 

My initial thought was to grow Musa Basjoo from seed, but the lovely people on 'Hardy Tropicals' told me that this is not possible, as propagation is from the pups which the mother plant puts out. Someone advised me to get Basjoo as small/ plug plants instead, as germination of banana seeds can be difficult, slow and erratic. The wisdom is that pups are cheap and will grow on quickly and strongly, whilst seeds may still be sitting, ungerminated, in the seed tray for several months. 

I took this sensible advice on board and began to look around for some pups. So, where do you go when you want something cheap and fast - why ebay of course! There were several sellers selling Musa Basjoo, and I chose one who had excellent feedback and low prices.Three plants for £13.50. What could be better ? Actually, four plants for the same price is even better. The button next to 'Buy it now' was entitled 'make me an offer' so I did, and the seller kindly agreed to pop in an extra plant for free. Below is a selection of the seller's plants.

(Apologies for quality of photo as it is a photo of an online photo!)

Other good advice from the members of 'Hardy Tropicals' was to fluctuate the temperature of banana seeds to encourage germination, which is something I know I omitted when I attempted to grow them before, and I will follow the advice to try 30 degrees daytime, and room temperature at night time. It can take anything from a couple of weeks to several months for germination to occur.

Members also recommended Musa Sikkimensis, which apparently is almost as hardy as Basjoo and with tougher leaves, and also Musa Helen's Hybrid. Ensete ventricosum is said to grow very fast from seed, but can be difficult to germinate.

'Jungle seeds' was recommended as a site with a good variety of banana seeds for sale, and as I have already used them before, in the past, I headed over there and eventually bought a mixed pack of banana seeds for £5.95 containing :

Ensete ventriculum - Abyssinian Banana
Musa velutina - Pink Banana
Musa sikkimensis - Himalayan Banana
Musa Zebrina - Blood Banana
Ensete Glaucum - Snow Banana

I like the idea of growing mixed varieties, and, if I  do get any to germinate, it will be interesting to compare rates of growth, leaf size etc.

Above is a photo from 2013, showing one of my previous attempts to grow banana plants from seed. The detailed , precise instructions should have tipped me the wink that germination was never going to be easy! For some reason, I decided not to follow any of this good advice and did things my own way, and guess what ... nothing happened!

From my own experience, and from the experience of knowledgeable others, it seems that banana from seed can be difficult. Not impossible but, well, let's say challenging. I like a challenge, and this time I'll do it properly and follow all instructions to the letter. If they fail to germinate, or, take a long time to germinate, then I will have those four little plants to lavish with tlc, so that they quickly turn into large plants. Hopefully, one way or another, I will have some new, high impact plants filling those naughty gaps for the open garden day.

So, now I am poised - waiting for my seeds and my plants to arrive. Waiting to switch that propagator on, which, like the official switching on of the Christmas lights, will signify the official start of a brand new growing season.

Saturday 17 January 2015

Hellebores no longer hang their heads ...

The late, great Geoff Hamilton once suggested that gardeners should visit a nursery every month and buy a plant in flower, to ensure that there would be colour in the garden all year round. This is a cracking idea on many levels, and one which I am going to follow for a whole year. Shame it is only once a month, but there is nothing in the rules to say that visits can't be more frequent! I intend to post about my purchase every month too. It is a great way to learn about what is in flower at any one time, and what choices are available.

I am not the first blogger to do this, by any stretch of the imagination, and indeed I first learned of Geoff Hamilton's suggestion on Jo's blog,  'The Good Life' . She bought a plant every month last year, and this year, and will review her choices this year.

 I am such an impulse buyer where plants are concerned, that this will be a great exercise in restraint. I intend to do my homework before I go, so that I will be buying something new, which I have never bought before. Buying plants in bloom throughout the summer months is so easy, but I make far fewer purchases for plants which flower in other seasons, winter in particular.

The garden contains little winter colour, apart from pots of cyclamens and pansies around the door, so it is ripe for a boost from a new plant. After reading other blogs, particularly Jessica, at   Rusty Duck I decided that I would buy my first hamamelis. Jessica mentioned a variety, 'Jermyn's Gold' , which looked fantastic, and smelled fantastic too, by all accounts. However, when I visited my local garden centre yesterday, the only hamamelis available was a rather unpleasant acid yellow... and it cost £30. I may have been swayed even with the exorbitant purchase price, but there was a woman complaining that she bought two of them, three years ago, and hasn't seen a single bloom yet. The advice she got was that patience was all, and that hamamelis take a long time to get established. I lost heart at that point  and went to look at the camellias. Too showy ... acid lovers, so would have to stay in a pot ... just didn't grab me...

My Holy Grail was the bench laden with hellebores ... cheap ... floriferous ... hardy ... gorgeous ...

Helleborus 'Christmas Carol'

Foliage 'Christmas Carol'

Now, I do have lots of hellebores in the garden already, but I have never bought one, more inherited some faded, washed out inbred plants, just about all of the same dirty pink hue. I love them dearly, and thought that all hellebores were like this, with fairly small flowers, shyly downcast. I wasn't prepared for this new generation of hellebores, which bear scant resemblance to the ones I know.

The first thing I noticed about this new super race of  hellebores is that they no longer hang their heads demurely, but look you squarely in the face ! Who would have guessed that modest, shy flower could be transformed into something as bold as brass!

The second thing I noticed was the size of the flowers, which are big, open and beautiful. The petals are very large compared with mine and the colours are clear and bright. 

The third thing I noticed was the price! I paid £11 for 3 lovely plants, one at £1.99, 1 at £2.99 and one at £5.99. As they are long lived perennials I feel that this represents excellent value, as they cost about the same as a bunch of supermarket flowers.

There were several varieties to choose from, and I chose three predominantly white flowered varieties - 'Christmas carol', 'Joel' and 'Rose Green'. They all have different qualities but would make a nice group, if planted together, as they would really complement each other.

'Christmas carol' was by far the largest plant and looked slightly rangy, in comparison. The flowers are a clear white, with yellow stamens. these contrast well with glossy , dark green foliage. The plant flowers, apparently, from October to February, which is amazing, if it does that in reality. It prefers shade or semi shade and grows to about 40cm. It is fully hardy.

My  next choice was a tiny little scrap called 'Rose Green', which looks much more compact than 'Christmas Carol' but apparently also grow to 40cm. It copes with full sun or semi shade, and flowers from January to March. The foliage is very different and is beautifully marbled with red and cream veining. The buds are much more spherical than the other two varieties and the habit of the plant is quite dense and compact. The flowers are tinged with soft rose pink and a fresh pale green. 

The third variety I selected was 'Joel', described as "a neat and compact plant with masses of pure white flowers opening from late November". It apparently copes well in a pot and prefers a humus-rich but well drained soil, in semi or full shade.

Hellebore 'Joel'


I am delighted with all three and pondering whether to put them together in a pot by the back door so that I can enjoy them every day. 

Roll on February ... 

Saturday 10 January 2015

You spoil me, your Excellency ...

You spoil me with your Christmas gifts, your Excellency ! I am overwhelmed by the diamonds and the pearls ...

Wait, that's not right ... I am overjoyed with your gifts of a giant propagator and a garden labelling machine! That's more like it!

Who wants perfume and bath salts and jewellery - personally, I welcome the gifts which keep on giving. Father Christmas knows me so well, he knew just what to bring me !

Now, who wouldn't be overjoyed at this beast of a propagator? I can get so many seeds in it at one time, I could propagate Kew Gardens if I so wished ! Just look at it, it has size, versatility and flexibility, and a plug. Only a few short weeks until I start cramming this bad boy with seed trays.

I didn't even have to drop heavy hints about it, as it was a complete surprise.

It is large enough to take a mixture of 2 large seed trays, 4 small ones, pots, or any combination of the afore-mentioned. I haven't quite worked out where I am going to put it yet, but that is a minor problem, soon resolved.

It is a good job I now have an industrial sized propagator, as I have been writing the most important list of the year. Not the one for Father Christmas, but the list of all the seeds I want to grow this season. It is a landmark in the gardening year, and a very welcome one too. It involves much thumbing of catalogues, reading back in garden journals, and online browsing, to put this list together. Throughout the year, ideas will form, or plants will be seen and coveted, and notes will be taken, so now is the time to bring them all together. I love choosing new varieties too, so all this takes a ridiculously long time. Once the list is complete, then there has to be a 'stock taking' exercise of all seeds currently owned.

It is amazing how many packets are already sitting there, in the drawer, just waiting to be planted. Some may be 'out of date' by a year or two, but I think it is always worth sowing them to see if they germinate, and they usually do, even if the hit rate isn't as high as it is with fresh seed.

My seed list is currently under construction and I have done my annual 'stock take' to see what is already in my possession, and what I need to buy.

I have already done quite a lot of seed sowing for this coming season, and have planted young plants out - 'Sweet Williams', Foxgloves 'Silver Cub' and 'Alba' are already bulking up well, while young white Lychnis, Sweet Peas and Sweet Rocket plants will get cracking in the Spring.

I will be sowing all my usual favourites this season - Dahlia 'Bishop's Children'; Ricinus, lots of different sized Cosmos, coleus, Nigella, sweet peas (I sow autumn and spring), tomatoes, chillies; squash, peppers, courgettes, aubergines, peas and beans.

Attempts at new things will include Asters, which are an unknown quantity for me.

Helichrysum, which will be a bit of a leap of faith as I bought my first plant last year and it flowered for ages, and the dried flowers are still a bright splash of yellow in the winter garden. The one I grew was floriferous but very leggy, so I'm hoping that the ones I grow will only have the flower power. I don't know how these plants have passed me by for all these years, especially when it says on the packet that they are "easy to grow".

My other garden present was a Brother garden Labelling machine, which I am hoping will solve ALL my labelling problems. It works with a tape, and prints out what is typed in, on sticky backed plastic film. This can then be stuck onto labels, or whatever surface is chosen.

I haven't given it a trial run yet, but I will report back when I do. Every labelling method I have tried so far has been a dismal washout - literally. I am hoping that this new labeller will give me labels which do not fade EVER.

You can keep your diamonds and pearls, your excellency, give me something special for the garden every time !

Sunday 4 January 2015

The bleak midwinter

First Bergenia flower
That's it. The new year has finally  crept in. The year has turned upon its axis and is now heading out of the darkness and into the light. It may only be by a matter of seconds every day, but we are slowly, slowly clawing our way back to the sun on our backs and the buzzing of bees. Heading towards new mown lawns and lazily swinging hammocks.

Helleborus Foetidus

Pansy 'Mystique Blue Halo'
Although it is the calendar which dictates the start of the New Year, to me it is the winter solstice which marks that turning point, and even though there will no doubt be some fierce some winter weather to come, we are headed firmly to Spring.

Once that fact is acknowledged, then a different mindset takes over, and instead of seeing the skeletons of grasses and the slimy remains of perennials, I begin to see the buds, the green shoots of bulbs and the glimmerings of growth. All that energy just coiled and waiting to burst out with the lengthening days.


Frosted geraniums leaves

Christmas, with all the preparations and the preoccupations, moves us forward imperceptibly towards the shortest day. As we order the turkey and wrap the presents the quiet ticking of time is unnoticed, taking us through the dark, drear days of late November into cold grey December.

Frost on Box leaves

Buds of Magnolia Stellata

And once the tree is shredded and the diets begun, then the first snowdrops can't be too far away. The first flowers of a brand new season. So it begins again , with the sowing and the growing and the hoeing, then the weeding and the planting and the feeding, to the flowering and the picking and the storing. Round we go again.

Viburnum Tinus 'Eve Price'

And I can't wait.