Thursday 25 August 2011

A break in the rain

We have had a terrible summer in London. What started off with so much promise with the driest start of the year I can remember, all went wrong from June when it started raining and it hasn't really stopped since. It has also been really cold at night.  Normally we eat in the garden 3 or 4 times a week, this year we have managed it 3 or 4 times in 3 months!

So when we had a gap in the rain last night and figuring we wouldn't have many more opportunities, we headed outside for the evening (admittedly with some warm cloths at the ready). It was an opportunity use the use the storm lantern  I posted about back in February.

What you can't see in the photo is all the colour (the photos either showed the colour of the lanterns but nothing else, or as above where you can see the whole area but no colour).

Just a shame we haven't been able to use it more.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

The mixed emotions of wrongly labelled plants.

You have been after that elusive plant for ages and just when you think you are never going to find it, it turns ups somewhere totally unexpected. What a great feeling as you pay, load it into your car and take it back to your garden. That elated feeling comes back every time you look at it, until as it grows you start wondering if it is actually the plant the label says.  It doesn't look quite right and after a while something finally confirms it is not that long sort after plant. You've been sold a pup.

Sold as aloe firebird, hoping it is not just a skinny aloe lizard lips
The elation turns to frustration when you realise you are going to have to re-start the search and almost as bad, you have another unidentified plant. In time the mystery plant stops being something you look at with annoyance and starts becoming something of interest in it's own right.  While not the plant you wanted it is still a good one; colour, shape and growing into something more special every day.  Frustration turns to feeling challenged to find the identity and you now have two searches on your hand.

Sold as aloe greatheadii
Out come the books, maybe you post a picture on a plant forum or in your blog, hoping someone can supply a name.  The longer the search goes on the more determined you are to solve the mystery.  It looks a bit like .... but the leaves are too narrow.  The spines remind you of ..... but the colour is totally wrong.  Please don't be an unnamed hybrid. Then a flower spike slowly appears, the best chance to get that elusive ID, or at least rule out some of the possibles. Challenged turns to impatience: how long does it take for a flower stalk to grow?

Flower identified plant as aloe prinslooi 
Finally it opens and the flower is very distinct, back to the books and internet.  Could it be ... the flower looks correct, the shape is correct.  Impatience turns to excitement.  You may be onto a winner, everything seems to fit and the other options have something that rule them out.  You post a picture to friends as a double check and when they agree. Excitement turns to joy at finally having that ID.

Now if only you can find that plant you were after in the first place.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

When deformed growth is good.

Normally it is very upsetting when plants start to grow abnormally. You put all that effort into growing a pristine plant and then something damages it, totally spoiling all your hard work. Often we manage to turn these bad events into something positive; loosing the growing point may force off-sets, even loosing the plant frees up a space for something else.

Sometimes it is this unusual growth that gets the plant onto our wish-list. I have posted a picture of this cristate aeonium before and it has grown a lot since then.  Instead of one wide stem there are now multiple snaking stems giving it a Medusa like appearance. Cristate plants are quite common and most collectors have either bought or had a plant go cristate on them.

But perhaps the holy grail of unusual growth is where the the plant grows as a single plant but is so different that it warrants a name of its own.  These plants are few and far between and so not something I ever expected to manage myself.  A month or so back I found this agave at a local garden center.  It was obviously not growing normally and I spent a long time looking at it wondering how it would grow,  the last couple of leaves seemed to be split into three sections, but this could easily be one off damage.

Anyway I took the plunge and a month on it is really developing nicely, or should that be badly? 

The latest leaf is something very different, it is split into three sections with spines running down between them.

If it carries on growing like this then it's going to be really amazing, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that it continues to be deformed. I would LOVE to see an entire plant with leaves like this, that would open up a whole other set of decisions!

Thursday 11 August 2011

To over-pot or not, that is the question.

A couple of months back I did a post on search for the perfect plant pot. It's not just aesthetics that are important when thinking about keeping succulents though; the most common discussion is terracotta verses plastic. Something I think is as important is the size and shape of the pot as it is another myth that all succulents do fine with restricted root systems. Getting the pot wrong can really slow the plants growth down, which in some cases can be an advantage but not if you are actually wanting your plants to grow.

I have said it before and no doubt I will say it many more times: keeping a close eye on your plants, whether it is watching for signs of pests or disease, their water requirements, how they cope with climate etc, ultimately gives you much healthier plants. There are plants that like to be pot bound, those that need deep pots, and those that need as much root space as possible. Ultimately it would be great if this information was available in books or online, but until then you often have to learn through trial and error. I have found with my plants that yuccas like deeper pots, agaves don't mind being pot bound in full or half depth pots, aloes respond to over-potting and echeverias there is no hard and fast rule. But there are always exceptions to this.  Agave montana for instance like to have root space and grow much quicker in the ground than in pots. This may be as much due to their requirements for more water than most agaves and bigger pots dry out much slower. The plant in the photo is now almost twice the size of a second plant bought at the same time but kept in a pot.

With aloes I tend to start by putting them into one of three groups.  The tree and very large aloes like aloe plicatilis or aloe speciosa need plenty of root space.  The large rosette style vary the most; aloe saponaria likes big pots, while aloe zebrina and aloe striata cope with restricted root growth. Then the small and new hybrids like aloe snowflake and the Kelly Griffin hybrids tend to be fine in the half height pots.  One sign they may respond to over-potting is to look at the roots when you re-pot. The photo on the right shows the roots of an aloe mawii that despite being re-potted in April was already showing roots though the bottom of the pot.  This weekend I took the plant out of its pot to have a look, the pot was already almost totally roots. I re-potted it into a much bigger pot as a test.

 Whenever I over-pot a plant I always watch it closely to see if I notice any quicker growth.  There is a line between providing space for root growth and ending up with root growth at the expensive of top growth. So I'll keep a close eye on the aloe mawii for the next year or so to check that it does indeed grow quicker. Now it is in a nice pot I can also keep it out as a feature. It took me a long time to track down having seen photos of adult plants and the unusual flowers that stick out horizontally from the plant.. I am looking forward to seeing how it develops.  This is one you can stress and in low water / bright sun conditions it turns an lovely red colour. Right now it is one of my favourite aloes so I wont mind giving it pride of place for a bit.

Apart from speed of growth the other area where pot size may make a difference is in producing offsets.  There are some people that think that restricting root space means plants produce more pups,  others say over-potting encourages it. For me the jury is still out; I have plants that pup profusely and others that don't pup at all and I am a long way from being able to say how pot size effects this.  The only way pot size effects pups for me is in easy of removing and spacing.  But as I tend to remove pups at the start of each spring when I re-pot this doesn't make much difference. I would love to hear if anyone has noticed anything one way or another.

Of course water and climate usually have a far bigger effect on the speed of growth than pot size.  But in the UK where we don't have the very hot summer, or intense sun light every little bit helps.

Monday 8 August 2011

Red means danger

I have commented before that the colour of aloes and echeverias can be altered by controlling the amount of sun and water. Plants like echeveria 'Big Red' need lots of sun to go a good red colour.

While others like aloe purple flush need to be kept overly dry to get the best colour.

Either way colour is something we try to induce in some succulents. Today I was reminded that sometimes colour in succulents is not good and can be a warning of something not being right with the plant.

One of my favourite agaves is a. filfera x isthmensis.  It is a lovely little cross and has grown well since I got it a couple of years back.  Normally it lives on the windowsill in my shed (my substitute green house), this year though it has been outside with the rest of the agaves.

I had noticed that at some point it had gone red, and given that many plants do this when you move them out into the sun for the first time I did not think much about it at the time.  Looking around this weekend it was still red which I thought was a little strange, although the latest leaves were going back to green. I posted this on a forum and was reminded that red leaves in agaves is often a sign of root damage.  So today I took it out of the pot to have a look and sure enough the majority of the roots were dead with only 2 or 3 new healthy roots. As there was no sign or rot, the roots were cleaned up and the plant repotted and moved back into the shed and a bit less sun. The good thing is that the new roots are healthy and the new leaves seem to be growing fine, so no long term damage.  It is reminder of the signs succulents can give that everything is not well.

I had heard about the colour issue before; in relation to offsets.  If you take an offset of an agave and it has minimal or no roots, one of the worst things you can do is to put it in the sun.  They should be in a nice shady spot while they develop their roots and ability to take in water.  Too much sun will turn the plant red in the same way, warning you that it needs to be moved.

It is far better to catch a problem early than to have to nurse the plant back to health once things have got much worse. With problems with the roots, they are difficult to spot, unless you happen to be repotting the plant anyway. So watching out for changes in colour in agaves, is a good one to remember.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Sitting out with a drink and the parakeets

The good weather continues and it actually feels like summer, after the wet July.  So we took the opportunity to sit out and enjoy the evening in the almost finished seating area. The seat is in, the decking waxed and who would of guessed one or two pots may have migrated to the area as well.

There are still a few bits to finish off, and I have to re-lay or seed the lawn in places, but it is finally getting there. The pots on the flower bed are only temporary while I wait for the holders that I can attache to the posts and trellis. Funnily enough, if we hadn't decided to move the original idea included converting that bed into a raised succulent bed  to allow most of the plants to be planted. So it is good to see them there, even if it is only for a short time. 

Living where I do in South West London, we have the pleasure of flocks of parakeets.  No one is sure where they came from, but there are now thousands of them living wild in the local parks and in fact there are so many they are considered a pest.  No matter how you view them,  there is no ignoring them. Sitting out on a summers evening you see flocks flying home to roost and it's still a sight I enjoy, even if it is a noisy one.

Photo by miacat63, and is much better than any I have.

They are a lot prettier than pigeons!

Monday 1 August 2011

A long standing project

I don't post much about my the non spiky parts of my garden. This is partly due to my spiky focus and partly due to the fact that it is not worth posting about. This weekend I finally got around to trying to finish off a seating area that has been an ongoing project for years.  My garden is a very odd shape; being an end plot in an  A shaped estate, it is a triangle.  So not only is it not very long (only 12m) but is is also half the size of a normal rectangular garden the same length. This means the bottom third of the garden is very narrow and it was basically a  choice between making it one large plant bed, or using it for something else.

My OH and I are both big fans of Morocco and so we thought it would make a good inspiration for a seating area.  A few years back I built a walled area, with a raised bed and two seats.  I found this photo which shows the areas and the rest of the garden.

The garden has changed a lot since then, not least the slow change from more fluffy plants to my spiky friends. One thing that hasn't changed is that neither of the gardens either side are used. You can imagine my thoughts as I look at these long gardens, both rectangular, and only left unloved.

Anyway the original idea for the seating area,  was to tile the walls and floor using bright coloured tiles and to build a pergola over the top from which we could hang a sail or tent to provide shade. The pergola went up last year, but we were still struggling to find decent tiles for the rest.  As well as tiling the floor of the actual seating area, we needed to do a path into it.  The narrow part of the grass has been destroyed by our dog, who charges up and down this bit to defend her territory. Here it was a few months back, looking at its all time worst.

It was now obvious the area needed to be sorted, but at the same time we have decided to move. Knowing we are going to sell the house, made me think that I would probably have to re-do the garden to make it more suitable; for a start I was going to have to dig up the dry bed and replace all my prized plants with something anyone can care for.  Plus I am not leaving them behind when I move, no doubt  this will be the topic of a future post. So I have been slowly working my way around the back replanting the beds in a way that hopefully will be good for the future residents.

Part of this re-vamp has been to decide what to do with the seating area. I needed to come up with a cheaper way of finishing it, as the tiles were now not going to happen.  So in the end with the limited budget we decided to deck the area and that's what I spent the weekend doing.

I had hoped to have the decking finished and the seat put back in again. It was all going so well until we got to three boards from the end.  There I was thinking I had planned it perfectly,  the offcuts were the perfect length to finish the job, until we went to measure the 3rd from last board and found it was 2cm to short!  Looking around I realized that was it, we could put the other boards in place but would have to return to the shop to get one more board and couldn't do that until next week. 

While it was a shame not to finish, at least most of the work has been done.  I used the rest of the time  to start the edging that will run the whole way around the flowerbeds and to clear the last bed ready for planting.

The cycad is another one of my prize plants.  It is about half way through its latest flush, so can't be moved until the leaves harden.  Once that has happened, the pot will be moved so that last bit of bed can be planted up.  I also have to re-seed the top part of the lawn, to get it back into shape, hopefully stopping the dog from ruining it again.

While the new planting may not be spiky, I will make the most of the posts and batons on the fence to hang pots from.  With all that extra space I may be able to move the pots off the raised bed I posted about earlier.  I know one person that would be very happy if there were no pots perched on walls ready to be knocked off!.