IF THERE was a longevity category for Petunias and other bedding plants in the Guinness Book of Records then it would have been broken many times this year. The calmest, sunniest year since goodness knows when, has produced some amazing performances from bedding plants that previously would have been consigned to the rubbish heap months ago. Normally, winter planting of pansies, for example, is well underway by now, but nurseries and garden centres have a glut of these and other plants intended for winter colour.
Clear skies have also produced cold nights, so don’t be surprised if cold sensitive plants are looking droopy despite warm days. Hibiscus, Agave atenuata and succulents such as crassula are particularly vulnerable. An overnight covering of netting is a good idea if you are in a frost pocket, or plants are looking stressed. Most damage is done when air frost settles on plants and the morning sun melts it off. If you notice an early morning layer of frost on your plants the best solution is to gently hose it away. Water from the mains or cisterna will be warm enough to stop any damage.
One plant that is particularly cold sensitive is strelitzia reginae (bird of paradise or crane flower) which never fails to fascinate. It has become something of a holiday postcard cliché, but is good value since it flowers from autumn to early spring, with the right treatment. Give it rich loamy soil, year-round regular water and feed – preferably slow release – and it will add a ‘wow’ factor to your garden. The paddle-like leaves blend well with tropical planting and resist wind and salt air.
Strelitzia are natives of South Africa and grow along riverbanks in the Eastern Cape, together with plants like Tecomaria and Plumbago, so if these other plants are doing well in your garden then this is a good place to plant them. It is always tempting to split clumps, but remember you won’t get any flowers for up to three years. Another member of the family is Strelitzia nicolai, which can grow up to 10 metres high, forming multi-stems and massive two metre long leaves. It is very tough and is often used in hotel plantings and round swimming pools to give a tropical look. The only downside is that it has aggressive roots and its leaves tend to shred in high winds. It tolerates being pot bound and will still grow to impressive dimensions making it ideal for patio screening.
Very soon you will probably be considering whether to have a ‘real’ Christmas tree. Images of snug fires, decorations and the mindless chatter of relatives you only see once a year make you realise why you escaped to the Algarve! Putting these images aside, there is something special about the look and smell of a real Christmas tree. Picea abies, commonly known as the Norway Spruce, is the one we all grew up with. Unfortunately, it hates hot sun and dry air so you are unlikely to see them growing here in the Algarve.
Therefore, the idea of buying one in a pot and planting it out after Christmas is a non-runner, unless you live in the north of Portugal. The other side of the argument, however, is that buying a rooted Picea abies in a pot will at least stand up straight and probably last longer than a cut one. All being well we will have Christmas trees for sale at St Vincent’s Anglican Church Christmas Fair, which is being held at Eiras Velhas, behind the PlantScape garden centre, on Saturday, December 4.
If you want a tree to plant out after Christmas then the answer is to forget European conventions and do what the Americans do in the southern states. This is to use trees suited to the environment, such as Cupressus Arizonica, which sells in its millions to families from Florida across to Southern California. Cupressus leyandii is also widely used and, despite its bad press as a boundary invader, makes a beautiful Christmas tree, provided you put childhood images to one side.
Should you opt for a rooted tree, remember they only tolerate a week or two of being inside, becoming stressed when subjected to artificial heat, so keep them outside until the last moment and afterwards put them out with the relatives and wrapping paper as soon as possible! Incidentally, bonsai trees, often given as Christmas presents, should also only be kept indoors for short periods, if at all.
A question asked time and time again by garden centre customers is what to use as a specimen bush or tree to give year round colour, which doesn’t take up too much space, tolerates neglect and won’t run rampant roots through the plumbing system. My choice would be Dodonaea viscose (hop bush), which is very good value for money on all accounts. It has deep purple willow-shaped leaves, tolerates poor soil, wind and sun, and can be grown as a bush or small specimen tree. Most sources state that its pink flowers are insignificant, but I disagree – although small they are very attractive and can be numerous on well-sited specimens. For hedging they make a welcome change from commonly used varieties and can easily grow to three metres high, yet retain good low foliage. They are relatively fast growing, so it is better to buy smaller specimens around one metre high rather than taller ones, which may be leggy and pot bound.