We are so lucky that there are many plants that grow well in our gardens during the winter months which started life in the southern hemisphere. This means that we have a lot of winter colour when many northern European gardens are frosted or covered in snow. Polygala, originally from the Bokkeweld Mountains in South Africa always seems to be in flower and makes a lovely tree or bush. Bees and Humming Bird Moths are attracted to the pretty pink flowers and in season the tree is a hive of industry! On the debit side these shrubs can grow quite tall and broad and their flowers and leaves make a lot of litter and they drop their very fertile seeds everywhere, resulting in lots of seedlings. Another good plant is Pyrostegia venusta, a climber that started life in Argentina and Brazil and gives of its abundant vibrant orange tubular flowers during our winter. It is a mile-a-minute plant and a house, not far from where I live, has whole walls covered in it. If you live along the coast you will have been enjoying Strelitzia regina flowers for some weeks now, but in my cold garden it is normally too early for it to be in bloom. Having said that though we had two flower stems open in time for Christmas – global warming perhaps? Its structured leaves are much used in floral art and when they dry later in the season, they twist into wonderful shapes, which I sometimes spray and use in modern flower arrangements.
Pelargoniums, great favourites in the Cyprus garden are also from South Africa. They are wrongly called geraniums here, although they do belong to that family. They flower continuously through the winter months, although their leaf and flower stems might not be as big as during the summer. Feeding them with a high potassium fertiliser during the autumn certainly pays off. They would benefit from a shortening of stems now and a tidy up, including removing any dead leaves and flower heads that may have dropped on the top of the soil. By adding some fresh potting compost to the top of the pots should revive them if they are looking tired.
Ornithogalum, which you may find in garden centres, is another native of South Africa as well as southern Europe and western Asia. The strap-like leaves are starting to push up through the soil now, soon to be followed by tall stems bearing clusters of attractive white star-shaped flowers, after which the leaves flop about and die off. Another bulbous plant that started life from there is Albuca nelsonii, commonly known as ‘Nelson’s Slime Lily’! What a dreadful name to give to a plant! This bulb, quite new in our garden centres here, has tall narrow lance-shaped leaves which can grow up to a metre long. From amongst the fleshy leaves even taller flower stems appear with loose racemes of white and green flowers. These attractive flowers are long lasting and the huge bulbs can be grown in pots as well as in the ground.
Jasminum mesnyi starts to share its lovely primrose flowers with us this month, although this is a northern hemisphere plant and hails from South West China. Sometimes long trailing stems that rest on the soil will quickly root and a new plant is formed. The other favourite jasmine, Jasminum officinale, also from South East Asia, should have finished flowering by now and needs a pruning right back to the wood from where new shoots will grow. The reason for this drastic action is because the plant flowers only on new growth. This jasmine is best grown over an ‘umbrella’ stand to show it off to best effect. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind!
WHAT TO DO IN THE GARDEN THIS MONTH
Hopefully there will be some glorious ‘Halcyon Days’ this month which means that you can make a start in the garden after all the Christmas excesses. We should have a weather window here which will enable us to plant or move shrubs and trees, whilst the ground is still moist – so don’t leave that job till later – get on with it now. There are many weeds about despite the cold so keep weeding them out. A plant needing support at this time is chasmanthe, erroneously named monbretia here. The lance-shaped leaves started to shoot from the corms in late autumn and growth is fast. Nowadays you can buy plant supports in major garden centres, so gather all the leaves and get them inside the supports before they flop over.
Lavender and rosemary shrubs may need trimming back now and we cut our lavender par terre this month into its geometric shape. Once it is pruned back to the wood the new bright green growth quickly comes through and as the weather warms, it turns to silver, caused by tiny hairs appearing on the leaves protecting them from the hot sun. You can also trim back lantana this month as well. Other trees and shrubs that benefit from a trim now are Caesalpinia gilliesii and Leucophyllum frutescens, which can grow too big for a domestic garden if left untouched. The latter is being used in towns in urban planting where the very attractive delicate pink flowers nestle amongst the grey foliage. Although the weather may be chilly, topiaries will be putting on growth and if not kept trimmed can quickly lose their shape. They are expensive to buy and are usually imported from Italy where many years work has gone into them before they reach the garden centres, so don’t forget them. It is so much easier to trim the new growth than the hard wood.
This is also the time to be pruning prunus trees before the sap starts to rise. Try to keep the centre of the tree open and remove any dead, diseased or crossing branches to allow air to blow through the tree. Tip cut some of the ends of the branches before they become too long and the fruits become difficult to crop. In warmer areas almonds, which belong to the Prunus family, may be in flower quite soon, so that is a tree to work on, although we tend to do this in late summer. If you grow a vine then this is the time to take off any remaining leaves and prune it and you can be quite severe. Again do this job before the sap rises or the vine may bleed. New vines can be started by pushing the prunings into the soil, leaving them to root over time and give you new plants, but vines need attention, so don’t grow them if you can’t spare the time to give them.
Succulents are beginning to send up flower stems and Aeonium arboreum may well have flowers atop the stems already. Established aloes will be thrusting their flower stems upwards with Aloe ferox amongst the first, their bright orangey-red poker-like flowers brightening up the border. These plants grow too big for pots and are best grown in the ground. Don’t be afraid to move plants, especially at this time of year, if they are not doing well. Give them another chance somewhere else as maybe the first place you chose wasn’t right for them.
Watch for the first narcissus to appear and enjoy their colour and early perfumes. As they form flower buds and start to open, they may be attacked by red bugs with a black stripe along their backs called Dionconotus neglectus that find any flower petals delicious. Once the bulb flowers die off they will turn their attention to wallflowers and irises. They have to be squashed in a gloved hand I’m afraid, so be prepared for that job!
Plant of the Month Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’
This very fragrant award-winning narcissus has double creamy-white flowers with pale yellow centres and between three and six flower heads per stem. Belonging to the Amaryllidaceae family and growing up to 40 cms, it certainly brightens up our early spring gardens after the dark days of winter. The bulbs should have been planted in autumn at depth of between two to two and half times the height of the bulb in free draining soil in a sunny spot in the garden. To achieve a pleasing effect plant them in drifts. Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness,’ which is also available in a yellow form, is known as a Division 4 bulb, which includes many other double flowering bulbs.
There are no known serious insect or disease problems with these bulbs other than they can be infested by the wretched Dionconotus neglectus, mentioned above. However, bulb rot may occur if the ground is very damp. Remember to take off the dead flower head before it has the chance to make a seed pod, which is a good time to feed the bulb with a general fertiliser so that the bulb can concentrate on making the flower for next season.