Reflecting on this strange year, as 2020 draws to a close, little did we think that we would have to draw on our plants and gardens so much to help us pass the time. I have always been a solitary gardener and found the enforced isolation bearable as I was able to get outside in my own space more often because I had no external commitments. As a result, I enjoyed my garden more. The blooming of some of the special (to me) plants lightened my heart during these tough times, although I was been unable to share the joy with my friends and family. As all plagues surely pass and our once in a lifetime isolation will hopefully fade into the distance, I think we will come to value the time we were able to spend among our plants and gardens and the joy and comfort that they afforded us.
The storms at the beginning of November were welcomed by gardeners here in Cyprus and as a result, green shoots are appearing everywhere now. This is a good time to see just what successes and failures you have had in your garden. The lack of rain during the summer caused many plants and shrubs to look rather desiccated, but some of them have been restored to health again. Succulents like Aeonium arboreum are filling up with water after the hot weather, which causes them to draw on their own resources to sustain them. Their amazing flower heads will be appearing shortly. Agaves tend to close up their outer leaves during the heat of our summers to preserve the inner ones, whilst Carpobrotus edulis, the Hottentot Fig, may need some dried up leaves and stems pruned off and then will start to grow and fill out again quite quickly. If you want to grow new plants from succulent cuttings then let the end of the stem callous over or look for some roots running along the underside of the cutting.
We are still enjoying reasonable temperatures and lots of sunshine while the air is full of the heady scent of loquats, and tiny cyclamen are popping up under trees and in sheltered places. Freesias and ornithogalums continue to grow apace along with osteospermums, some of which are already in flower. Seedlings are showing shoots above ground and I noticed that my calla lilies are beginning to poke their noses above the soil again. While this is good, a watch should made on them, so that as they are not eaten by the snails, which have also come alive!
In some older gardens you may see Hibiscus mutabilis in bloom now – why do we have to wait all year to enjoy these lovely plants? Everything has its time and place I’m afraid! I have longed to have a Hibiscus mutabilis. There is one in a garden quite near me. I was given seeds some years ago, but my garden is too chilly and I have at last come to the conclusion that they are not for me. This is great disappointment, as I love to watch the flower colours change throughout the day from white through pink to red.
WHAT TO DO IN THE GARDEN THIS MONTH
Feed fruit and nut trees this month with 20.10.10 fertiliser – three mugsful for mature trees and a mugful for young trees. This will give the citrus leaves a boost whilst the fruits are ripening. Find a spot halfway between the trunk and the tree canopy and put your irrigation nozzles and food there, which is where the feeding roots are. It is also not a good idea to have a hedge close to your trees, but if one is already in situ in your garden then plant new trees about 3 metres away from it. This is a really good time to plant them as well as shrubs, giving them a chance to establish while the soil is damp. Older trees and shrubs may also need a tidy up. Cut out any dead or diseased branches and those that cross in the middle of the tree. The exception to this rule is plum trees, which tend to grow in higher elevations here. They should be pruned after harvesting the fruit, or they may be affected by silver leaf, a fungal disease of the wood and leaves of some trees. The fungus infects the wood through pruning wounds that have not healed, and causes a silvering of the leaves, followed by the death of the branch. Shortly though we will be able to enjoy the first swelling almond flower-buds and that will be a sight to behold.
Poinsettia Day is marked in some countries on December 12, although they have been on sale since mid-November, so ensure that you have your plants by then to make the most of them. Remove them carefully from their cellophane wrapper and give them a good soak. The best way is to hold the plant pot over a bowl and let water trickle through, before displaying them in a draught-proof place. Despite all the ease in which they are brought to the point of sale nowadays, they are still a tricky plant to keep looking good once you get them home. They need a bright spot in your living room away from any window or door draughts and watered only when dry. I am sad to say that most of them will be consigned to the compost heap after Christmas. In Cyprus it is still possible to find the old species poinsettia trees in some older gardens like Terra Santa Gardens in Larnaca, whose bracts are quite different to the mass of cultivated plants.
Orchids are produced so cheaply these days (every supermarket has them on display) that they are no longer the expensive and special gifts to give to someone. They are available in wonderful colours nevertheless, but beware, as some of the colours are not natural and have been artificially applied by the growers. Some growers think that cacti and other plants such as tiny fir trees should be smothered in fake snow in time for Christmas, but give them a miss, for although they may look attractive for a short while, the plants cannot tolerate the coated leaves and will soon demise.
Spring flowering plants such as freesias and chasmanthe are shooting up already and may need some staking soon to protect the flowers. This is best done before the leaves become too tall. Tiny cyclamen are pushing up their attractive, green silver-mottled leaves, which have been dormant since late spring, and it is a wonder of nature that they survive our hot weather. In the Levant, where most native cyclamen come from, summers are extremely hot and a covering of leaves helps to keep them cool, although the tubers can withstand a certain amount of cold weather, too. What a splendid sight to see the huge colonies of tiny cyclamen make towards the end of winter. The speedy spread of these lovely plants is helped by ants, as they distribute the sticky seeds around shaded areas of gardens, particularly under trees and shrubs, to shelter them during their dormant summer season.
PLANT OF THE MONTH – Zantedeschia aethiopica
This lovely introduction from South Africa, Zantedeschia aethiopica, also known by the common names of Lily of the Nile, Calla lily, or Arum lily, is neither a lily nor an arum. Its botanical name suggests it started life in Ethiopia, as the word was used in historical times meaning lands below Egypt and Libya, including South Africa. It appears to have been grown in European gardens since the mid 1600s and is a popular addition to our spring gardens here. The rhizomes are usually available when the spring flowering bulbs come into the shops in the autumn. The smaller, coloured varieties, which are very popular nowadays in the floristry trade and greatly used by brides, tend to arrive with the summer flowering bulbs in March.
A perennial plant emerging from a rhizome-like rootstock, Zantedeschia can grow in the same spot for many years. The striking trumpet-shaped white flowers atop long stems have a slight scent to attract pollinating insects to them. The best time to divide the clump is when the plant is dormant and it has become too large for its space. You may have to use a sharp spade or knife to cut out a section and then replant both pieces about 5cm deep. It is possible to collect the seeds and sow them thinly in a tray of potting compost, but for better results plant new rhizomes in the autumn for spring flowering. Zantedeschia will thrive in a shaded spot in gardens here, but will grow equally well in moist soil in partial shade or full sun.