By Patricia Jordan
In the last few days before Christmas, when all the last parcels and cards were away, the decorations up and only the last bits of shopping to be done, I found a few hours to do some beneficial weeding. At this time of year, with rain and some sunshine, they grow at an alarming rate and before long you could be wading through a forest of weeds. My under gardener attacks them daily in his province (the orchard) with a hoe and cuts off their heads. I maintain that the root systems need removing too, especially as the sun is not hot enough at this time of year to burn them out. I watched around six sparrows hopping along the garden path the other day looking for green stuff to peck at. I know that pigeons do that, but I didn’t know that sparrows did the same. A friend who had canaries for a time was always looking for chickweed for them, so I expect the sparrows like it too. As this particular part of the garden is fenced off with plastic mesh about 1.5 metres high to keep off neighbouring cats, it also kept out the sparrows, until one had the bright idea of flying over it and was soon joined by the others. I didn’t mind their help at all!
Weeding is all part of gardening and a job that I don’t mind at all. It’s rather like ironing when you can let your mind wander. I just wonder sometimes how quickly the garden would revert to nature if I didn’t weed. All the tiny wild geraniums (not pelargoniums), euphorbias, echiums and alliums would abound. It can be backbreaking, but I have a little chair and move along the paths on that. The cuttings I took in October have rooted but now the problem is to look after them during the wintertime, when they are at their most vulnerable. Luckily, I have a cold frame to put them in, but it has to be opened and closed each day. A clever friend of mine built a greenhouse from plastic water bottles, which enables him to grow salads and veggies all winter long. The wonderful poppies I grew last year have seeded themselves everywhere, despite my careful harvesting of the seeds, and some are even trying to flower. Annual seeds are usually tiny and germinate easily, but there comes a time when they need to be thinned out, so as to get bigger flowers or veggies from them. I am very reluctant to do this right now, as I am sure that the cold of winter will do that for me.
Clementines abound in the orchards at this time of year and their bright orange skins glow amongst the green leaves. It is thought that they derived through the accidental fertilisation of a mandarin and a sweet orange, although credit is given to a monk living in Algeria called Brother Clement Rodier. Similar to tangerines, they tend to be easy to peel, can be separated easily into segments and are typically juicy and sweet. Clementines are smaller than an orange and the flesh is a deeper orange colour. They are susceptible to the dreaded Mediterranean fruit fly, so hang those yellow flypapers amongst your trees. Grapefruits and oranges are other likely targets for these beasts!
WHAT TO DO IN THE GARDEN THIS MONTH
The first breath of spring shows itself in more sheltered spots towards the end of the month, when the first almond blossoms appear. An almond tree puts on about half a metre of growth a year and can quickly reach gigantic proportions, making maintenance difficult and nut cropping almost impossible. Almond trees are best pruned in late summer or you would be removing the flower buds.
Pecan trees can reach 20-30 metres if they are not curtailed, and then the crows would get all the nuts! Pruning, the removal of dead, diseased and crossing branches, is a vital part of the success of your fruit and nut trees.
Although the ground should be moist after all the rain we have had, it is relatively cold and it would be better to wait until February until you plant any new trees and shrubs. Ideally, late October and November are the best times for this, as the earth is still warm then, and there is usually some rain to help things along.
Some spring bulbs will be showing through the earth now, so keep your eye on them as slugs find their fleshy leaves delectable. Deadhead the early narcissus so that they don’t make seeds. You want the bulbs to concentrate on producing a flower for next season.
I have started to feed and water my potted hippeastrums (amaryllis) again and hope for the glorious flowers that they have given me in the past. When they die down much later, it’s best to just remove the flower head, as the stems along with leaves continue to work hard at next year’s growth, long after the flowers have faded.
In the garden, Jasminum mesnyi will be showing off the lovely bright yellow single or sometimes double blooms. In some warmer gardens Jasminum officinale will still be in flower, but if you want to enjoy the scented flowers in the summer, then you must prune this year’s stems right back to the main branches of the bush now. As a general rule, bushes and climbers that flower early on in the season, are pruned after flowering. This also applies to lavenders and rosemary bushes as well. Many succulent plants will be coming into flower too. Others that have swelled with the recent rain are Aeonium arboreum with their broccoli-like heads soaring above the ground. Protect any Agave attenuata now, as they very vulnerable to winter cold, much preferring a hot sunny spot in which to grow a huge flower stem. Once it has had a flower, then the plant will die. Roses seem to have flowered for ages too this season and may still be in flower now. However, roses need a rest period and some professional rose breeders take off all the leaves after pruning back the plant to help things along. After three or four weeks, they start to feed them again.
PLANT OF THE MONTH
As you travel around the countryside now, you will find people busy picking the small olives and pruning the trees afterwards. I use the word pruning loosely, as they are sometimes hacked almost to death! Luckily, olive trees are extremely resilient to this sort of treatment and come back in abundance, but light pruning is all that is really necessary. Originally, olives were grown in Africa, but around 600 BC they were introduced into other Mediterranean countries. They have a long history and one growing in Crete is reputed to be 2000 years old! Loved by Greeks and Romans they were symbols of mortality and even today olive branches are put into graves.
These evergreen trees, with slender green leaves and silvery backs, grow well even in impoverished soil. They respond though to occasional watering and feeding. Olive trees can reach ten metres in height and grow up to 700 metres elevation here, and although they do need cold winters they prefer it not to be too cold and certainly not below -8C. They need the long hot Cypriot summers to complete their growth cycle.
The tiny creamy-white flowers appear in April or May, producing lots of pollen to which some people are allergic. The fruits, appearing after five or six years’ growth, will be ready for picking from October until January, depending where you live. Like lots of other fruits, the olive is known as a drupe – a one-seeded fruit. The green ones are sometimes picked, mixed with garlic and crushed coriander seeds and served as part of a meze. If olives are left on the trees, they will eventually turn black when they are ripe and then can be pickled in brine or oil, whilst others are milled for oil.
Plant the tree in a hole larger than the size of the root ball and put a little wood ash or slow-release fertiliser in the bottom of the hole. Water the tree in well but ensure that it does not become waterlogged. Feed it at regular intervals as you would your other trees. When you are pruning remember that the flowers and fruit appear on the previous season’s growth, so don’t cut too much off! They do not need much watering but equally, irrigation seems to do no harm and probably helps to plump up the fruits.