Now’s the time to give the stars of your garden some pampering, writes Peter Dowdall.
I was in a garden recently and an evergreen azalea was not just in bud, but in flower and I don’t mean that one or two errant buds had opened early, rather it looked like it was about to burst into full bloom, in November.
It’s quite normal for some spring-flowering shrubs to give us a little flower during the autumn and winter, particularly if September’s weather was kind.
They open a bit early, giving us a teaser, if you like of what is to come but the azaleaI was admiring looked like it was totally ready for action. I have no doubt that the low temperatures since then have put manners on it and it’s gone back to sleep now for the next few months.
Many of the stars of the spring garden such as camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, pieris and magnolias set their flower buds in the autumn previous to blooming in the spring. It’s important then that they have enough nutrients — in this case potassium and phosphorous — which will promote the production of flower buds.
It’s important too, that these plants don’t dry out during the autumn as that can lead to the buds dropping off early, before they ever get to flowering stage and perhaps most importantly is their situation within the garden.
These plants should not be positioned facing south or east and If you stop to think about it for a moment, it all makes total common sense as do most things in the natural world. The reason that they shouldn’t be planted in these aspects is that the early morning sun can damage them.
The flower buds which are set from July to September will remain on the plants throughout the winter and all that can bring. So, when the temperatures drop low enough and the garden gets covered with frost or snow, it’s important that this is allowed to melt gradually.
If the plants are facing the first of the sun’s rays, it quite literally scorches the petals within the flower buds and the result is that they will open up in the spring, with brown, discoloured petals which could lead one to think that the shrub is suffering from some disease or deficiency whereas in fact the damage may have been done moths before.
Far better to position these plants in dappled or semi-shade. The days will warm up and any frost and ice will melt off as temperatures increase during the day and not as a result of burning direct sunlight.
All the plants mentioned above are ericaceous, meaning, acid-loving. Thus, along with a semi-shaded position they will want a soil with a low pH, somewhere between six and seven will be perfect.
If you’re not sure of the pH of your garden soil then soil pH meters are widely available in garden centres. If your soil is limey or alkaline, my advice is to grow such ericaceous specimens in pots and containers which you can fill with ericaceous soil and compost.
You can try digging out a large enough hole in the garden, lining it with plastic and filling this with ericaceous soil and compost but I don’t really find that satisfactory as nature always wins out and the soil, in time will become alkaline. Far better I think to keep them in pots.
Get it right, give them the correct conditions and then these plants will bring beauty and colour for years to come in the garden.
Magnolias open up their beautiful blooms from furry buds on naked stems as winter turns to spring and though they are only at their beautiful best for a few days, a week or more at most, they are an essential ingredient in the spring garden, for with their opening comes the renewed hope and promise that comes with each spring.
Japanese evergreen azaleas will suit even the smallest of gardens as some will stay as low as 30cm or less from the soil with others, reaching upwards of one metre.
Depending on the variety, they will burst into flower anytime from late January to June and they give one of the showiest spring displays of all, often such is the colour that is difficult to see any foliage for all the blooms.
Camellias too will open anytime from late winter to early summer but do bear in mind that these will get quite large. You will need to allow at least 2m in diameter for spread and expect most to get to 2m or more in height. There are camellia species which will flower in winter,even late autumn though the most commonly grown forms here are the spring flowering varieties. Do keep an eye out though for one of my favourite of all the camellias which will begin flowering during December, Camellia ‘Cornish Snow’, a real showstopper.