Choose your winter plants with care

We deluded ourselves that we could grow tropical delights, like Bird of Paradise, in Ireland.

Let January 2010, the coldest on record, be a warning to choose your winter plants with care, advises Peter Dowdall.

WHO fears to speak of 2010? One winter, with the coldest temperatures on record, in January, and another, at the tail-end of the year. The year of two winters will be remembered for a long time, but for even longer by gardeners. It did so much damage, and wrote-off so many plants, we now mention the year in hushed tones, nearly whispering it, with a hand up to our mouth, when we refer to it.

Now, the truth be told, we had lost the run of ourselves during the 1990s and noughties, and, no, I’m not talking about the mad rush to become property developers and buy bigger cars and show off gross amounts of material possessions.

I’m talking about what we were doing in our gardens.

Blessed, as we are, by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, and forgetting that we live in a cool, temperate climate, we hadn’t suffered a severe winter in years. We were really being bold and had got daring, with people (me!) believing that we could even grow such beauties as the Strelizia — Bird of Paradise, and other such tropical delights, outside, all year round.

And then came 2010 and a severe lesson in manners, from which we are still reeling. For the following year, I was being asked, every single week on radio and in person, about Grisellinea, Fuchsia, Escallonia, and nearly every single day about Cordylines. It seemed that every household in Ireland had at least one Cordyline in the garden, and never had I noticed so many around the countryside until they all turned black and mushy, standing like reminders of glory days passed. ‘Wait and see’ was the only answer that I could give to the most oft-asked question: ‘Will my plant recover?’

We had never experienced temperatures like that, before, and it really was going to be a voyage of discovery to see what came back and what didn’t. Now, three years later, the majority of Cordylines have recovered, not all to their former glory, but they have regenerated, either further down the trunk or from the rootstock.

I really hope I don’t experience another winter like that, in Ireland, and I don’t think we will.

After all, it was one in over a hundred since records began. So, please don’t let it put you off Cordylines, as they can bring so much to the garden, in terms of colour and, most of all, structure. They make a classic statement in a pot, either under-planted, at this time of the year, with Cyclamen, or simply standing alone. Also, the spiky, grassy-type leaf makes Cordylines a great architectural plant in a border, mixed with more shrubby plants, bringing a certain airiness and elegance to the party.

I have always been a fan of the variety ‘Torbay Dazzler’, with its fresh, bright foliage of cream mixed with green, never growing out of control, even in maturity, unlike the straight-green Cordyline australis, which can grow to quite some height, up to seven or eight metres, with many of them producing multi-stems resulting in a spread of 3 — 4 metres. Over the last few years, a number of new varieties have found their way into our gardens and my new, absolute favourite is the very aptly named ‘Electric Pink’. Well-named because the different shades of pink in the leaf demand your attention, wherever you see it. Also, keep an eye out for ‘Renegade’ and ‘Burgundy Spire’, two very dark-purple, nearly black varieties. To get the best out of any very dark-leaved plant, put them with, or near, something bright, and, for these two, may I suggest a nice, baby-pink cyclamen beneath.

So, please, no longer speak in hushed tones, let us shout farewell to 2010, be a bit bold again, but learn from our mistakes, maybe no Bird of Paradise, but Cordylines aplenty.

I wish to thank everybody who has offered such kind words since I have taken over this column, and please accept my sincere apologies for not getting back to everyone individually. I hope you have enjoyed my horticultural ramblings, as I now take a break from writing for a few weeks. Over the next few weeks of craziness, take five minutes to reflect. Whether you are surrounded by people during the Christmas season, and are spending the time with three or four generations of family, or you are spending it alone, or with a much smaller gathering, Christmas is a time for all. The garden even seems to take a break for a few days. Enjoying a walk on Christmas Day, I always feel that plants, and even weeds, are taking timeout.

Christmas is a time to reflect on many things: life and what has shaped us, highs and lows of the previous years, and those that have gone before us and no longer physically spend Christmas with us.

This is what makes it bittersweet as we get older, remembering those no longer with us, whilst still enjoying the wonder on children’s faces as they have yet to experience all that life has to throw at them, good and bad. This year, for me, it will be all about my beautiful two-year-old daughter, and the day will be spent with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, full of laughter and love. It is a truly magical time of the year and, wherever you are and whoever you are with, and whatever God you believe in, I hope you arrive in 2014 in good health, happy and enthusiasm to get back to the great outdoors.


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