By Patricia Jordan
THE end of the year looms and its time to make preparations for another Christmas. Writing cards and wrapping presents makes one nostalgic and yearn for things which might have been. You may be mourning lost friends and find it hard to write to the rest of their family with wishes for a brighter new year and you will certainly drink the health of absent friends.
So it is with the garden, although it isn’t the end of the gardening year by any means, as we are only half way through the growing season. Those who live high up will have to battle the elements to protect plants from winter rains and colder temperatures. When you have finished all your Christmas chores it’s time to take stock of what had been good and what has failed miserably. There are always some losses. Since we entered the European Union plants have been imported into Cyprus that do not have an earthly chance of surviving here! They may look good in brochures and seed catalogues, full of brightly coloured flowers and wonderful seed heads, but will not be able to cope with our vast range of temperatures. We all like a challenge, none more so than me, but generally speaking these plants are doomed, as Private Fraser of ‘Dad’s Army’ would have said!
I have tried a couple of times to grow eremurus here, known as ‘Foxtail Lilies’ or ‘Desert Lilies’. They make wonderful vertical points in a border and come in a variety of delicate colours. Slightly tricky to grow, they prefer a dry sunny spot and like a lot of plants don’t want to be moved once settled in. They should grow here as they are part of the asphodel family which grows abundantly in Cyprus, but plants don’t read the books and can be iffy if they don’t like the spot you chose for them. The tubers look rather like an octopus with a centre corm and long sinewy fleshy legs emanating from the centre, which if they are severed in any way curtail the chances of them surviving. Harvested after the flowers have died down, packaged and sent out here to sit around on a shelf until some soul who actually knows what they are decides to give them a home, they are unlikely to survive as they will have become dried and wizen! Snow drops are available here nowadays but the hard little bulbs do not do well. Normally they are divided after flowering (in the green it is called) and planted while they are still very much alive when much better results are achieved. I think we miss out on a lot of lovely garden plants because of the distance between the growers and Cyprus.
I am often asked at the gardening mornings I hold during the year what to grow in gardens when everything else fails. I always recommend taking a walk round the locality looking at what will grow in the same area. We wouldn’t all want to be growing the same plants but you could try another colour range of similar plants. If we weren’t all willing to take a chance, then life would be monotonous and there wouldn’t be any challenges!
What to do in the garden this month
I expect you are hoping that I won’t say there’s much to do as you bustle about your preparations for Christmas, but there are some essential jobs that must be done in the garden this month. Feeding fruit and nut trees is one of those jobs. The fruit trees have not been fed since May and will be in need of some sustenance after that long spell of producing lots of fruit. 20.10.10 fertiliser is recommended at this time of year. If you are new to gardening in Cyprus you may wonder just what I am talking about, so here’s a little explanation. All plants need Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium to ensure good growth and fruitfulness. Nitrogen ensures strong green leaves and without it the leaves would be in very poor shape indeed. The other two chemicals in lesser amounts are for the roots, shoots and fruits. Packets or bags of fertiliser come labelled with this information on them and if you only have a small number of trees then you can buy a carton from a garden centre. Larger amounts need to come from a Co-op or garden chemical shop.
The numbers always appear in the same order – Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. You will note the letters NPK (their chemical letters) and against them a number stating the strength. There may also be what are known as trace elements like Zinc, Iron and sometimes Magnesium added in, which are all part of the basic foods for fruit and nut bearing trees. Doses are 900g for large trees and 300g for young trees, spread around the base area where the roots are. Any rain this month should water it all in.
While we are talking about fruit trees you need to watch out for the Mediterranean Fruit Flies which are attracted to the colouring fruits. They seem not to attack lemons or limes but the rest of the citrus crop is fair game. The nasty creatures can be an egg one day and twenty days later an adult laying its own eggs. Lots of people don’t like spraying, which should be done every 10 days, but if your fruits are infested then you will have to resort to it. The insects may be coming from an adjoining garden, so even though you are watchful in your own patch, you may still find them around. The alternative is to hang sticky yellow cards among your trees. Even shop-bought fruits are not always immune from attack, so check out for any soft spongy holes on citrus fruits before you bring them into your home. If you do find fruits with the telltale holes where the fly has entered to lay eggs, don’t let them lie on the ground but get rid of them. The grubs incubate in the ground so you would just be encouraging more.
Clear up any debris under trees and shrubs so that when the rain does come, it can penetrate right down into the earth and refresh everything. Those awful snails and sometimes slugs hide themselves away until they are awakened by the rain, whereupon they will start to eat all your seedlings and crops, so when you are scooping up leaves make sure you dispose of them too.
There is still time for a little pruning and trimming as most things are semi-dormant at this time and there may even be some potted plants that need potting on into bigger pots. Try to do that a pot size at a time so that when the plants roots fill that pot you can move it on again. You can of course group small plants like cyclamen together to make a bigger display. One of my gardening mantras is not to use potting compost straight from the bag but turn it out and get some air into it. If you live in an apartment you could use a bowl and break up the compost with gloved hands just like you would rub butter into flour. When the soil is nice and fine, then it is ready for use.
I expect you will buy or be given some of the Christmas potted plants available here. Poinsettias should be allowed to almost dry out before watering. Put the pot in a bowl and let water run through the plant and then return it to a bright place away from draughts.
PLANT OF THE MONTH Asparagus densiflorus
This excellent house or garden foliage plant is from south and east Africa and is sometimes known as the Foxtail Fern, Basket Asparagus Fern or the Cat’s Tail Asparagus. It is not a fern but it is related to the Asparagus family. It is sometimes known as ‘Myersii’ or ‘The Sprengeri Group’. In Cyprus it can be grown indoors or outdoors and is ideal for those who garden on verandas and want a reliable plant that does not require full time attention. The tubers, which burrow themselves in below the surface, are able to retain enough water to see the plant through drought conditions, although some of the stems may turn brown in the dry heat. Should this happen, they need be cut right back to the centre of the plant.
During early spring there will be sporadic blooming of small white flowers, which come later in the year and just in time for Christmas, turn into most attractive red berries which contrast well with the bright green stems. The berries are toxic to humans as well as cats and dogs, causing stomach upsets and nausea.
The plant spreads easily but not annoyingly, and can cope with sun or partial shade. Propagation is by seeds or division but this may mean that you lose some of those water retaining tubers. It is a good all round plant for beginners and experienced gardeners alike.