All fired up

news: All fired up

Several readers have e-mailed recently regarding fire-damaged trees, asking whether they will recover. A good rule of thumb is that trees regarded as indigenous, such as oaks, carobs, eucalyptus, olives and some pines will recover to some degree – assuming they were not burnt to a stump. Eucalyptus, of course, go the extra mile, often recovering when burnt to the ground. Ground fires hit shallow rooting trees badly, while old forests survive thanks to deep roots.

Any grafted tree, such as citrus, seldom recovers and any sprouting from the base will be from the rootstock and therefore a waste of time. But nature often delivers surprises and the best policy is to be patient and see what appears in the spring. What should be remembered is that fires were part of a natural cycle and man’s efforts to intervene have replaced open forests with undergrowth and shrubbery that burns fiercely, doing far more destruction than formerly.

On the subject of undergrowth, that free form gardener, Charlie Dimmock, recently wrote in one of the UK Sunday newspapers that people often cleared too much debris from their gardens. It was better to leave some behind and let it naturally recycle into the soil. On raking a thick layer of pine needles, leaves and dead flowers from under my Nerium oleanders I tend to agree with her. While the rest of the garden was bone dry, the earth under the hedge remained damp between irrigation cycles. Whether you use tree bark or plant debris, the benefits of mulching, in reducing water consumption and maintaining soil ecology, are inescapable.

One thing to watch though is the condition of your irrigation outlets, which easily become blocked or come off remaining unnoticed under the mulch. It’s always a good idea, anyway, to make regular checks, especially at the end of a long hot summer, when boreholes are getting low and more particles are brought to the surface.

Disappearing fig leaves

and hot chillies

Nature is surprisingly resilient when it comes to drought. A recent garden centre customer was concerned that her fig trees were dropping their leaves, which is perfectly OK as this is its way of dealing with low water. New leaves appear within days of rain or a good hosing.

Readers of this page may remember the pot of decorative chillies I was growing on my terrace. Unfortunately, they were strong enough to stun a concrete elephant, but did give me a taste for growing more of the hot stuff, plus some sweet peppers for the kitchen. The only place left in my garden, however, had terrible soil and would probably need dynamite to clear it. Also, water would run off the surface, probably doing more good to nearby weeds than any new plants.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I put a couple of bags of compost in a large 150 litre pot previously occupied by a palm tree. To this, I added some bamboo canes and my motley collection of chillies and pepper plants, which by then had grown leggy in their individual pots. The result, a few weeks later, is an amazing mass of green and red peppers, encouraging my wife Jenny to make further culinary innovations. I strongly recommend her chilli potato pasta!

Something stirs

Last winter, Armando and I cleared some plants from a garden in Lagos. In one corner under a tree were some huge, wide green leaves connected to grapefruit sized corms, which we dug up, potted and left in the greenhouse all summer. A few weeks ago, the amazing flowers shown here emerged, identifying it as Haemanthus coccineus. Otherwise known as blood lily, it originates from South Africa.

As the last oleander flowers begin to fade, now is a good time to prune and shape this versatile shrub. You can’t really go wrong – cut it to the ground and you will get a new multi-stemmed shrub, take out lower limbs and reduce the number of stems and you can make it into a small tree. Alternatively, just cut back branches that have flowered and watch it grow into a giant. If you are looking for something to make a high colourful hedge, or a specimen shrub that will grow in windy conditions or survive with minimum water, then Nerium oleander is the one to go for. Don’t be put off by large pot bound specimens as they spring into action once planted in open ground.

While the white variety ‘Sister Agnes’ will grow to six metres or more, a salmon coloured oleander seldom makes more than one metre and is ideal for pots. Less common is a relative called Thevetia peruviana, which has beautiful glossy, green leaves and funnel shaped flowers, which can be orange, yellow or peach coloured. It grows very well here and many Algarvean gardens have them shaped into small trees as well as multi-stemmed shrubs. Like oleander, all parts of Thevetia are poisonous and the wood should not be burned in confined spaces.

Plant of the month

Finding a small shrub that will flower into winter under exposed conditions can be difficult, so to find a genus like Salvia that has many examples is exceptional. Don’t be put off by the garish red Salvia splendens, used in English bedding schemes, instead choose the widely available Navaho which forms a small shrub up to about 30cm high with deep red, pink or white flowers on every shoot. When it starts to look straggly, a good haircut with shears will firm it up and start it flowering again – provided you don’t over-feed or over-water it. In massed planting it is outstanding.