I CAN hear it already — “The world’s gone mad”; “This climate change is really confusing the garden”, and: “What’s going to happen with my rhodos in the spring?”
Whilst climate change is probably one of the biggest global problems we face at the moment, that’s for a different day.
What I’m referring to now is what’s probably going to happen over the next few weeks and months as a result of the recent spell of fine weather.
Camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias are some of the plants that are already covered in flower buds in preparation for next spring’s festival of colour.
You can be certain that some of them will open up soon because of the relatively high temperatures and sunny days that we have enjoyed.
The plants are actually somewhat confused, believing that we are starting into the spring season and that what was actually our summer, must have been the winter.
However, it’s not that unusual in this part of the world for this to happen, as we regularly have this type of weather during September.
Another genus that produces buds in the autumn to flower next spring is the Pieris.
We tend to think of these Pieris only for the foliage that it produces, the new growth opening up a beautiful red in colour but it also produces masses of lily of the valley type flowers during the spring and summer.
We might also think of it purely as a plant for spring interest but in fact it’s an addition to the garden throughout the growing season, as it produces red new growth nearly every month of the year.
The most widely grown and popular variety is ‘Forest Flame’ but there are several varieties that will stay much smaller and would even be suited to growing in containers.
Pieris ‘Debutante’ and ‘Purity’ are two which will stay very dwarf and are among the best varieties for flowering, literally smothering themselves with white bells in the spring.
But one variety that brings so much more to even the smallest of gardens is ‘Little Heath’.
As gardens get smaller and the range of plants available to us grows ever larger, particularly in these days of the world wide web, it becomes more important that each plant that finds its way into your garden, should offer something each season.
Pieris ‘Little Heath’ is one of those plants. It doesn’t have the fantastic display of red leaves that most of the other varieties have, nor is it a good variety for flowering.
No, but what it does bring is beautiful delicate silver variegated leaves that seem to positively glisten under the winter sun.
It’s a dwarf plant, growing to less than 60-70cm in 10 years and it’s a dense, evergreen shrub, but it has an informal shape which gives it a feeling of airiness and elegance. It’s good all year round but I think it’s during the next few months that it comes into its own.
As the days begin to shorten and wind down and we enter into the darkness of winter, ‘Little Heath’ can be like a light bulb in the garden reflecting what sunlight we do get.
During the spring and summer, its beauty can be smothered by other more showy and brash specimens, the azaleas and camellias perhaps, stealing centre stage, but when they are long forgotten, this little beauty is still there shimmering away.
A great plant to use underneath darker colours such as Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ or Dodonea ‘Purpurea’, the silvery foliage acting as a great foil to the dark purple. Underplant it with some lovely dwarf daffodils such as ‘Tete a Tete’ or ‘February Gold’ and you have an altogether different effect.
All the pieris species are hardy in Ireland, being native to the mountainous regions of Asia and North America.
They will, however, like the rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas, require an acidic soil (pH of 7 or below) to thrive and I would also suggest semi shade, preferring to see the sun in the evening and not the morning.
The reason for avoiding the morning sun is that as the new growth is developing in late spring, it will be covered in frost on cold nights and if the plant is facing east, the morning sun will burn the frost off and damage the tender new shoots beneath.
Much better to let the frost and ice thaw out gradually and then the pieris will delight in as much sunlight as it can get from lunchtime onwards.
Nor does it like high winds and I have found over the years that this is not so much because of leaf scorch — no, the reason for planting pieris in a position sheltered from high winds is because they tend to be quite shallow rooted and will simply become uprooted if the wind proves too strong.
Its important when planting any new shrub, such as pieris ‘Little Heath’, to use the right compost.
I only use the Living Green organic wormcast-based compost as it seems to help plants to establish quicker and it will provide all the nutrients needed for the first years or so.
Dig a big enough hole, two to three times the size of the root ball and be generous with the compost.
After that, pay close attention to watering over the first 12 months until strong and established.
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