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October/November 2011

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Dusky hydrangeas, disappointing dahlias, indigofera and ferns

At this time of year the mood of the garden changes every hour of every day. Hydrangeas are taking on dusky maroons and purples, while Hydrangea ‘Annabelle' is upstanding thanks to the sheep-wire support put in place last spring. Red flowered Tropaeolum speciosum has taken over Hydrangea ‘Teller White' - what a striking combination. Leaf colours on hamamelis, cornus and stewartias are turning from green to shades of red, orange and yellow, and at ground level many low acers are surrounded by nerines and single-flowered colchicums.South

I was very disappointed to find some dahlias bought in a garden centre were not true to their colourful packaging. Height of 1.5 metres was promised, and large yellow flowers. I have ended up with small dirty-white pompom flowers, and out they will go to the dump, while the dahlias bought from specialist growers have all come true.

Again this year, after the frost, I will garden on the side of caution, so winter preparation is in full swing, cutting back earlier hardy herbaceous plants while any slightly tender plants will be left unpruned till the spring. A heavy mulch is being applied over plants that need it and old fern fronds will be placed around dahlias, salvias and agapanthus to protect them. Winter pruning of hardy shrubs - griselinia, pittosporum and corokias was a regular job, but no more, all will be left till spring time.

If I were giving stars for autumn flowering shrubs, it would be for indigoferas which have been flowering since August, producing an abundance of purple flowers. Similar in appearance are the earlier flowering lespedezas which have replaced an abutilon against a south wall. By the end of November, I will have brought tender salvias, aeoniums, strelitizias and clivias indoors.

I have found old double glazed glass units useful to keep plants dry - I place them on plant crates for low plants or lay them against a wall for climbers, the sides can be stuffed with short branches and bracken or polystyrene for extra protection.

Ferns are coming into their own, Adiantum venustum bears delicate green fronds, similar to the maiden hair fern, I grow it in shade under mature trees. Polystichum and polypodiums give good winter interest, but Phyllitis scolopendrium ‘Crispum', a cultivated form of the native hart's tongue fern, holds its glossy foliage really well. Division is easy, pulling mature plants apart, and re-planting in leafy compost.

I am in the middle of potting up winter flowering bulbs for the house. Hyacinths are so easy, I always make sure to buy prepared bulbs which are specially grown for early flowering. I pack them tightly in containers now with their growing tip just over the compost, keep them a little moist in a warm dark room till they come into growth, by early January you will have scent and colour. The ‘Paperwhite' narcissus and freesias are equally successful in continuing the flowering season.

I have never been afraid of moving plants, many of them successfully, although a large magnolia is not happy after its big shock, but a chaenomeles is budding well after its move. I always add lots of peat and compost to the large planting hole.


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