Monday 30 April 2012

Going straight to the top of my wish list

Aloe ferox 'Daley Mist'

Sadly I doubt you will ever find one for sale, as they don't offset, don't come true from seed and so far no one has tissue cultured them. But I can dream.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Living picture update

Well so much for the drought! Since they officially declared it we have had nothing but rain.  As it is too wet to get outside I thought I would do a few updates. First up, last summers attempt at a living picture (the original post can be found here). It was as much a test to see how I would make the frame and what to plant in as anything else. The photo on the right shows what it was like at shortly after planting.

Sadly I forgot to take my usual autumn photo so there is nothing to show what it looked like at the end of the summer.  I was  disappointed with the growth and feel it is down to me leaving it too dry and not giving the plants enough pampering to get properly settled. Almost all the plants were recently cut offsets with little or no roots and now I think this was a mistake as they had to settle down and root in less than perfect conditions. Can you believe I even managed to kill the saxifraga! All that time I spent placing each little bit of plant to try and ensure an even growth, was wasted and no there is just soil.

The agave cream spike did not like it either, but this has already stated to recover from the winter and grow so it seems to have settled now.

The rest of the plants have done OK.  I have been a bit more vigilant so far this year and the plants have started to swell from their winter state and put on good growth.  The echeveria elegans are starting to offset so they will nicely fill that corner soon.

The sedeveria lutescens have done really well and I love the red colour.  I have added a few more since this photo to fill in some of the gaps.  A couple have started to flower as well adding to the list of flowers appearing in there.

The two plants that have done best are the unknown graptopetalum and the graptosedum 'Mediterranean Mystery'. I love this last one,  it is small but seems to be a tough as old boots.  Not only has it grown and started to flower, but it has offset nicely and has the next generation of plants coming through to take over when these flowering stems get cut back.

The graptopetalum has offset and is also sending out good flower spikes. Again this one did not die back at all over winter and has held its colour well.

The sempervivums did well and filled out nicely last summer.  Two of the three varieties shrink back a little during the winter. They are filling out again and are starting to send out their offsets meaning a lot of the gaps can be filled this summer. This s. ciliosum is one of my favourites and send out really long tendrils before the ends root and the new plants grow.  Hopefully this will give me a chance to direct them to a location I want filling.

Overall then not the wild success I had hoped for, but I have learnt a few things: only plant rotted plants and feed and water frequently.  Let see what happens this summer.

Sunday 22 April 2012

The hardy succulent garden: Agaves

Time for some plants.  The idea is to select the 3 best of plants in each group: agaves, aloes, yuccas and echeverias.  As a recap, all the selected plants should be hardy down to -10C and require minimal protection. This will be easier in some groups than others, so I thought I would start with an easier one, the agaves.

1) Agave parryi. You can't select hardy agaves without mentioning this plant, with the plus of different forms to select from.  You can chose from wide or narrow leaf, colours from green to pale blue, and different size and colour teeth. These are two of mine which show some of the differences.

Most seem to be hardy when mature, but some seem to cope better when small than others. When looking for plants, it is always worth see if you can get a pup off a plant that is already growing outside.  If you are not sure give it protection the first year, so it has time to get established. A simple plastic cloche over the plants to keep the worst of the rain and snow off should be more than enough for this plant.  For my larger plants shown above I simply cover with fleece to keep the snow out of the crown. The plants do not need this to survive, but it keeps them in top condition. My favourite form is a. parryi HK1684, not a very attractive name but the plant is a good blue colour and has the best dark red teeth.

This one was a little small to be planted, but it has grown a lot and is now getting to the size where I would be happy to plant it out.  To get it ready it is left outside over winter but kept dry. I will probably repeat this for one more year and then plant it next year.  In case you are wondering, given that you often see the variegated versions, they seem just as cold tolerant even from a small size.  I have not tested one planted yet, but again kept dry they get you through without problems.  Whichever variety you go for you will no doubt end up with a lovely clump as they pup quite freely.

2) Agave bracteosa. Not the most popular, some say due to the fact it doesn't look like a proper agave, but very hardy from a small size.   I don't even bother to fleece mine before snow and it never even marks, maybe because the leaves are thinner and more leathery.  While it looks like it doesn't have any teeth, the edges to the leaves are sharp and give similar to paper cuts.  I think this plant is actually a safer bet than parryi and I have it is a shame it is not more popular.

There is only one normal form, although there are a couple of variegates.  The most common is a. bracteosa 'Monterrey Frost', these are so expensive and hard to come by in the UK there is no way I would risk mine outside.  I am jealous when I see photos form the USA where these now seem to have even made it into nurseries in bulk.  Hopefully at some point someone will let me know if theirs copes with snow the same way as normal form.

3) Agave montana. If I was only going to select three agaves, then a. montana would have to be one as it is the one that grows best in wetter climates.  There was a lot of hype about this plant when it first came onto the market, the fact that it grows at high altitude in or on the edge of forest.  Two bad winters in the UK and lot of people are now less impressed with this plant.   I think they were being a little harsh, OK it is not the super agave we all hoped for, but part of the problem is people planting tiny plants. This is one that grows into its winter hardiness. In the UK I think plants needs to be at least 30cm across to be fully hardy.  Once they get to that size they seem to have little problem with our wet and cold.  With small plants, I find just keeping them dry is enough the cold is not the problem.  Then with larger plants I just keep snow out of the crown.

There are a few other agaves are equally hardy (which I'll come to in a bit), but this one made it into the top three because of its lovely red spines and its very structural form.  If a. bracteosa is not agave enough for you, then a. montana is the plant for you.  Sadly it is unlikely to offset, to you have to plant your own clumps.  Leave plenty of space though as they fill out very quickly even in the UK.

So there are my top three hardy agaves. To be honest there are a few others, that could be in the list (probably in the place of a. parryi as the least interesting of the three).  Here are some of the best of the rest:

Agave x nigra.  A very hardy plant and well worth a place

Agave filifera. I was surprised that this one copes in my dry bed.  I put a cloche over my larger one as I really want to keep it pristine.

And some the jury is still out on, they should be OK although can be very variable, but well worth space if especially if you are going to use rain covers.

Agave gentryi, a close relation to a. montana.  This is famous for the teeth on the leaf margin.  There is a form called 'Jaws' due to having huge teeth. These have done OK for me with on the snow kept out of the crown.

Agave weberi.  Another of the toothless forms, this one gets good and big.  There is a lovely wide leaved version which is worth tracking down if you can find it.

Agave victoria reginae. This is another that has really surprised me, I have two planted out, one with a rain cover and one without and while the rain cover has helped, it does not seem to have made as much of a difference as I expected.   These are slow at the best of times anyway, so it is difficult to know if they are struggling or not.

Agave mitis.  Used to be a. celsii and you often still find it sold as such.  Quite a soft leaf and is a slug magnet.  Damaged leaves will rot come winter, but if you can keep the slugs away it is fine with just fleece to keep the snow off. There is a gorgeous blue form which is well worth looking out for as a specimen plant, although don't plant it as the rain will spoil the look.

Agave salmiana var. ferox. A good chunky plant. There are reports this is hardy, but mine struggle without rain covers and were killed with snow in the crown.  It is worth a go with rain cover, but I don't think it is reliable without them.

So those are the agaves, as you can tell, I think there will be more than three varieties in the bed.  Please feel free to post your top 3 hardy agaves.

Friday 20 April 2012

The hardy succulent garden: structure

Design is an important part of creating any garden, more so when trying to create a hardy succulent area.  I tend to do lots of drawings of the area, measure it up, work out how much sun it will get and finally plan the planting.

One key part of this is thinking about the planting medium and the physical structure. When it comes to growing succulents in the UK the mantra is "drainage, drainage, drainage".  It is not enough to simply add gravel to the soil, or even replace all the soil with gravel. There is a big difference between a gravel garden planted with local plants or alpines, and trying to grow succulents from much warmer areas. If you want a truly versatile dry bed then it has to be raised, either by building a wall around the whole thing or using a rockery. There are two reasons for this, the first being drainage.  Raising the bed above ground means that if the planting medium is free draining, any water will run straight through and out of the bottom.

The second advantage is that in raising the bed up you have an opportunity to introduce a heat sink.  These are increasingly being used in green house and even house design, but are not widely mentioned when it comes to the rest of the garden. I am sure most people recognise that a large rock on the surface will store heat during the day slowly releasing it over night. Multiply that up with a pile of rocks and you have a heat sink which may be the difference between life and death for some plants. In my current bed, I used all the dug up concrete to raise the levels and filled gaps with gravel This extra mass forms the base of my heat sink and I suspect maybe one reason I can plant some the plants in my dry bed.   The height and heat sink were increased further with a more sculptural top layer of large rocks, forming the pockets into which the plants where placed.

I am already considering options for my next garden, do I want brick or stone walls, railway sleepers, or perhaps build only the back wall and then slope the bed down to ground level at the front. Then what stones do I want to use? I like the river boulders I have in my current bed, but I have seen some amazing succulent beds using volcanic rocks and darker stones. Finally do I want to include any soil at all? My current front bed is almost pure gravel, but this slows growth down and having a way I can include soil in some location without it washing away would probably be helpful to some plants.

It's only once I get into the new garden and see the space; what shapes I want, and how the succulent bed will fit in with the rest of the space, that I will be able to finalise exactly which method I use. Whatever I end up doing, all the succulent beds will be raised to some degree and will make the most of heat sinks wherever possible.

I should give one warning though.  Should you ever come to move you had better hope that the next person wants a dry bed, other wise they are going to have to move all that material back out again!

Tuesday 17 April 2012

The hardy succulent garden: Climate

What with digging up the dry bed allowing me to closely examine the plants and hoping the next house will have a larger garden, I have been thinking about the hardy succulent garden. With this in mind I thought I would do a series of posts on the topic. A lot of it will be in planing for the next garden; thinking how to build the beds, what to plant and what winter protection (if any) to use.

So what do I mean by a hardy succulent garden?  Firstly the majority of plants have to be planted all year, not just sunk and dug up before winter.  For me the plants will mainly fit into the groups of agaves, aloes, echeverias, yuccas, with a few other plants both as features and as fillers. Finally winter protection should be kept to a minimum and should be about keeping plants in pristine condition not about survival.

For this first post it seems sensible to look at my climate. Living on the edge of London my winters are not that bad, -10C (14F) would be my absolute minimum. Although we do get 2 - 3 snow events a year, they usually only last a day or so and it is very unusual for snow to stay around for a week. Sadly when this snow is wet and is prone to melt and re-freeze and this does more damage than the drier snow other areas of Europe gets. Perhaps as important are the summers, you can get away with a lot more if you have long hot summers.  Our summers are often neither of these and it can seem to rain as much in summer as in winter. While that is not the case, we do not get the extended hot periods that these plants would really like.

I'm not sure exactly how the series will pan out.  I'm thinking of a post on the planting material / bed structure. Then one on each group of plants and finally one on winter protection. I have no idea if it will be useful for me or others, but it will at least give me something to do until I can actually get on with the new garden.

Saturday 14 April 2012

And so it begins

With a constant stream of people coming through the house, I used a break in the viewings to start dismantling the dry bed.  The agave section is the first to go, this was it this morning.

I thought it was best to start with the smallest plants first and work up.  This lot came out in about 1 hour, being planted in almost pure gravel makes removing them really easy. There was one pup from each of the agave parryi, you can clearly see the difference in colour and shape now, they looked almost identical when planted.

The bed is already looking much emptier. I'll do the rest of the agaves, the filifera, nigra and montana next and then I will have all the space I need to take care as I dig out the yuccas.

Given how much time it took to design, build and plant up, not to mention the time I have spent protecting it and removing leaves, I have mixed feelings about the speed with which it is can be dismantled.

Thursday 12 April 2012

The ugly duckling

There once was a little echeveria hybrid who felt very unloved compared to the other hybrids.  It wasn't its fault it didn't turn out as pretty as the others, after all you can't choose your parents. For years it was considered a poor echeveria agavoides hybrid while the other hybrids were pampered, named and given pride of place. The only bit of attention it was given was to humiliate it in a post here highlighting how plain it was.  Come winter it was put storage, tucked away at the back, out of sight and out of mind.

Come spring waking up, it tentatively put out its first flower spike.  Quietly not wanting to attract attention it opened its first flower hidden among the other plants.

Then something amazing happened, it noticed that the flower was being photographed and assumed that again it was to be humiliated. But it wasn't

Slowly it built in confidence and put out more flowers and with each flower it got more attention.  No one seemed to be laughing, instead the comments were about how good it looked.

Finally it was able to take pride of place. Its flowers the best on display, not at all like the lack lustre flowers of its parents.

Gone are the plain leaves, the loose shape, replaced by thick, pale blue leaves a nice round rosette and those lovely large flowers.

The ugly duckling was ugly no more.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Shed in flower

Looks like you cannot fight nature and with all the sun and warm weather we had in March everything has come into flower early this year in the shed.  Given that most echeveria flowers are yellow, the flowers are not exactly a techni-colour display. That is before you add the plants themselves still in their winter colours. Put the two together and you do get a feast for your eyes.

I love the different shapes of the flower spikes; the branched, the straight and the shepherds crook. Some go a little mad at this time of year and will need a good hack back once the flowers are over.

Some are just delicate, the graptopetalums have some of the best flowers.

Wherever you look there are flowers weaving between the other plants.

There is so much in flower I have no chance of controlling crosses, so it is down to nature this year and we shall see what it can do.

Monday 9 April 2012

Planting up the greenhouse

I felt it was time to plant up the greenhouse .  There were a few choices for plants, in the end I opted for a cute little cactus. 

Friday 6 April 2012

Echeveria seedlings

After a recent comment asking about the echeveria agavoides 'ebony' seedlings I thought it was time for an update, especially given the growth. I potted up to of the e. subrigida x peacockii seedlings earlier in the year and you can see the difference that has made in their growth.  Who says that succulents don't respond to pampering.

First up was to pot up the remaining e. subrigida x peacockii seedlings.  There is still really good variation in the colour of these from plain green to a very pale blue / white. I hope this continues as I will then be able to select the best ones and pass the the rest off to friends (or the highest bidders). 

The e. agavoides 'ebony' have been much slower.  I find this is typical of the variety, they seem to take a long time to get to a certain size and then suddenly get going.  I would expect them to stay small this year and then properly put on good growth next summer. Although if we actually have a summer that may be different and they have got a good head-start now they are all planted up.

Both of these should be very collectable once they have grown a bit.  I am sure my OH will be looking at them think "a little bit of extra cash", I will probably look at them and think "swaps anyone"?

Tuesday 3 April 2012

It had to happen

It's official we are moving and so the dry bed is going to have to be dug up.  It is funny when people come to look at the house apparently there are as many comments about the garden as the house.  There are the ones who think it is great and those that ask if it is going as the plants do not look child friendly. Whatever others think it is strange to think back to what it was like before:

Even back then there were signs of my addiction with pots full of agaves and I think it was the thought of having less plants in pots that persuaded my OH to let me dig up the concrete. Not sure it worked quite like that in the end, although at least the front bed has developed every year and she actually enjoys looking out onto it.

Now I just need to dig it all up! The agaves and yuccas are going to be first, some of these have got quite large now and this section of the bed is probably my favourite.

One has to be the agave montana, they love having their feet in the ground and is almost twice the size of the one kept in a pot. 

At this size it copes with our winters without any problems, only needing a little protection to keep snow out of the crown.  It is a good one for the UK as it grows best when slightly colder and wetter which is perfect for those UK summers. I will be interested to see how far the roots stretch on this one. Also in this bed are two agave filiferas, two agave parryis (plus a few pups), an agave x nigra and a few little ones. The large yucca rostratas are going to be interesting as well.  They are famous for dropping their roots as the first sign of disturbance.  Hopefully being in gravel will allow them to be dug up with minimal disturbance.

There are agaves in other parts of the bed as well, this agave bracteosa holds court at the front,

While this agave gentryi is hidden away in almost shade.

As I am not sure how long it will be before I can replant them, they will be put into pots and grown under the assumption that they will still be in pots over winter.  That way in the worst case of not having their new home ready in time they should be easy to manage over winter.  This will work fine for most of the plants, the problem plant is going to be eremurus stenophyllus. You may remember this post about the plant last year. It is starting to appear again and I don't have time to leave it to flower. 

I have no idea when the best time to dig it up will be, should I do it sooner or leave it as late as possible? If anyone reading this knows please let me know, it will be a great help.

So that's what is going to be keeping me busy for the next few weekends. It will all be worth it for a larger garden, space for a green house and of course the fun of being able to design something from scratch again. Or lets hope so anyway.

Monday 2 April 2012

The road to recovery.

A few weeks back I posted about my poor aloe zebrina that needed to be top cut after damage (the post can be found here). I finished with this picture of the top cut, which I rested on some gravel to dry off.

The top cut has been resting in the gravel since then and looking today it has started to root nicely.

Normally I would expect the roots to form around the edge, but these are coming in a very neat circle through the middle.  The next stage is to get it settled into soil.   I want to encourage the roots to grow down, so I gently rested the base on the soil and then filled a little more.

Finally I added a layer of gravel around this to keep it stable.  The idea at this stage is to encourage as many roots as possible and not worry about the plant depth. Once it is established and showing signs of proper growth it will be re-potted much deeper to give a much more stable plant. As always, it will be put somewhere out of the sun and warm to protect it during the next few weeks.

This one is well on the way to recovery and hopefully will back on form again by the end of the summer.