Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Add some blue to your late winter / early spring garden with Spanish bluebells

Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebells)

Around this time of the year a nearby town called Kyneton hosts a daffodil festival. The cooler climate that the area provides really suits daffodils and as such lots of people have them growing in their gardens. That being the case another bulbous plant commonly known as the bluebell has to take a back seat to the Narcissus plants.  It flowers at the same time as daffodils and jonquils and planted in mass is quite spectacular.

Hyacinthoides hispanica or Spanish bluebells are native to an area known as the Iberian Peninsula which as expected contains the Spanish coastline and other nearby regions. They are dead easy to grow and as with many other bulbs they are extremely hardy specimens. I have seen them growing in extremely dry locations such as under an archway where almost no rain would fall. In England they have hybridized with Hycacinthoides non-scripta and the resulting plant is quite invasive. In Melbourne this isn't the case and they are a great addition to your other bulbous plants.

After they finish up for the year let them die back and try to resist cutting back the browning foliage. If you leave the foliage to die back the bulbs will benefit and draw energy from the leaves. This energy will assist in the next years bloom. If left in place they will naturally propagate themselves and you should get more and more each year. If you get too many simply dig up some of the unwanted bulbs.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Funeral flower, calla lily or death lily. Zantedeschia aethiopica. Weed plant or ornamental plant?

Old school ornamental garden plant Zantedeschia aethiopica

Zentedeschia aethiopica is a really classic plant that is found in many gardens in Melbourne Australia. It is one I associate with the 60s because it seems to be in lots of gardens that look like they were planted out in that era. Often when I look in the established gardens of old orange brick houses or Californian bungalows they seem to have a clump of these somewhere. Often they are amongst all the other old style plants that are no longer used in todays planting, things such as the red berried Catoniasta or mirror bush (Coprosma repens). I clearly remember clumps of funeral flowers growing in my Grandparents house so maybe that's also why I think of it as an old school plant. It is native to regions in southern Africa, has a height of potentially 1m and a clump may potentially spread to approximately also 1m. It is well known for its large white flowers consisting of a white spathe surrounding a yellow spadix.

Is the yellow spadix of Zantedeschia aethiopica poisonous? 

The short answer is yes. However according to information I've read on the Kew gardens website the whole plant is poisonous not just the spadix. Eating this plant can cause irritation, swelling of the mouth and acute diarrhoea. Not my idea of a good time.   

Common names for Zantedeschia aethiopica

The other gardeners I speak to today almost exclusively give this plant the rather plain moniker of arum lily. It has many common names, the most popular of which seem to be funeral flower, trumpet lily, calla lily and death lily. Funnily enough my own mother had funeral flowers at her wedding (I'm not sure if she knew of the flowers name).

A plant so hardy that it considered a weed in some parts of Australia

Yes it is considered a weed as it thrives along creek lines and wet areas in Western and South Australia. I was once told that it is comparable to Agapanthus orientalis in terms of it being an almost 'unkillable' plant in Victoria. It is a clump forming perennial which has underground rhizomes that it uses as an energy store to re shoot in the cooler months after dying down during the warm season. Propagation is incredibly easy as it is just a matter of dividing the rhizomes with a spade and replanting them.

Close up of the classic white spathe and yellow spadix.

A clump of Zantedeschia with a couple of flowers on display.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to create and maintain a lavender hedge

How to grow & care for a lavender hedge


There are several reasons why people desire to have hedges in their gardens. Privacy, wind breaks, linear definition, ornamental purposes and probably several others that don't immediately come to mind. Lavender ticks most of those boxes though its short stature probably renders it less useful for creating privacy. That being said for what it lacks in stature it more than makes up for in perfume as there aren't many other hedge plants that have such a strong scent. This article goes through the process of planting a lavender hedge from seedlings and how to care for it until it reaches the desired size.

1. What variety of lavender should you choose for your hedge?
That's right there is more than one type of lavender you can use for creating a hedge. The basic two types are English and French however there are now several new types in nurseries with more showy flowers. Most of the new types I have seen tend to be more closely related to French lavender and should be cared for the same way. For more information on the differences between French and English lavender click here to see another blog entry I've written on the subject.

2. Choosing a location for the hedge.
Lavender is not an incredibly fussy plant but It does like sun and I wouldn't grow it in a very shady spot so don't plant it against a south facing wall (or a north facing wall if you are in the northern hemisphere). The other good things about lavender is that it is fairly drought tolerant so irrigation may not be required depending on your local environment. As an example I only really water my lavender at home in the very hottest part of summer and it is growing just fine.

3. Soil preparation.
Even though lavender is not a fussy plant you might as well do some soil improvement before you plant unless your soil is already in fantastic shape. My reasoning behind this is that hedges are usually planted with the view that they will be there for a long time so if you don't improve the soil before planting you wont have the chance to do so in the near future. Lavender being of Mediterranean origin prefers slightly alkaline and free draining soil so mushroom compost is an ideal candidate for soil improvement. Dig some through the area and its sweetness will ensue more alkalinity and because it is compost it will improve soil structure and therefore increase drainage in clay soils (or conversely increase water holding capacity in sandy soils).

4. Spacing the plants.
Spacing is important when planting a hedge. The main point is that you don't want to space the plants too far apart as they may not grow wide enough to mesh together which is what hedging is all about. Planting them too close is not so much of an issue as it just means they will mesh together faster (but will be more expensive as you are using more plants). The plant tags that come with the seedlings you buy will specify the spread and height of the plant when full grown and you can use that information to figure out what spacing is required. Different lavenders have different widths so using the plant tag information is ideal but if you want a precise figure I suppose if you planted lavender with a spacing of about 40cm it would mesh together nicely.

A row of Avonview lavender that I planted for a client. I used 40cm spacing which should provide a fast meshing of the plants.

5. Planting out the seedlings.
Some basic rules I like to follow when planting out seedling are timing and watering in. In terms of timing I mean planting the lavender in early spring which gives it a good chance to put on some healthy early growth. Also as with planting out any small seedling, don't plant it out in extreme weather (either extremely hot or freezing frosty weather). Watering the hole you dig to plant the seedling and then the seedling in situ also ensures a happy seedling.

6. Feeding the seedlings.
Adding some pelletized chicken manure after planting is a good idea to ensure adequate plant nutrition. Once established I would feed the plants every year when the weather starts to warm up and again a couple of months later.

7. Tip pruning the plants.
People have different ideas about when to first prune lavender plants. I like to let the little seedlings establish for some time before I give them their first pruning. I wait until I notice that the plants have put on some growth (say 25% of their starting size) then prune them back by about 10%. The first pruning I tip prune the entire plant to encourage more branches to develop all over the plant. After that I wait until the plants have put on more growth then after that I tip prune the top of the plant which has the effect of making the sides kick out. Keep doing this until the sides mesh together and form a rough hedge. After that I wait for more growth then I prune the hedge to a desired shape.

8. Shaping and maintaining the hedge.
Keeping your hedge trimmed to a desired shape is easily achieved if you keep on top of things but you may get to a stage where the hedge has vastly outgrown its desired form. From there you will need to cut back the hedge back to the desired shape. If you have let the grow too much the hedge may look very woody after this heavy pruning. If you have English lavender do not prune back to the point where you see no leaves and only woody stems as it probably will not grow back. French lavender and most of the new style French variants can be pruned back quite far and still come back. The rule I follow is that I cut back as far as I can so long as I see at least some leaves (often tiny) and no further. So far I haven't killed a lavender hedge by following this principle.

 French lavender hedging I maintain in desperate need of trimming.  You can see the shape is starting to degrade so the next time I prune this hedge I'll cut it back quite hard.