Friday, 28 January 2011

Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!

Still too blooming cold

Gardening in my sleep.
On Tuesday morning I woke up worrying about the plants in the polytunnel. As my memory and organisational skills have deteriorated frighteningly this seems as good a way as any of deciding what to do on a particular day - letting my unconscious mind sort out the priorities. I hadn't been in there for a couple of weeks and I hadn't looked under the fleece for almost two months so my heart was in my mouth when I ventured in. It didn't look promising. I could see shoots covered in fuzzy grey mould peeping out all over the place. 

The Polytunnel of Doom
First I checked the max/min thermometer. So even in the last fortnight the temperature in the polytunnel has sunk to -7C. Hmmm. Not surprising then that after this and the Christmas Ice Age the few 'spare' pelargoniums I had left there were well and truly dead. A few large cannas and hedychiums that I couldn't fit into the greenhouse had dead foliage but their roots still felt quite firm, so they may live to fight another day. A large Salvia leucantha (one of the most tender salvias I keep) was definitely dead but others such as S.'Indigo Spires' were still showing signs of life. Cordylines fine, Echium pininana OK (hurray), Ensete ventricosum dead (boo), Agapanthus and Nerines seem fine too. Phew. But the damp atmosphere under the fleece coverings had really encouraged rampant grey mould so I decided to risk leaving them off until really low temperatures are forecast.

As it was quite mild that day I kept the door open and removed every bit of mouldy foliage, threw out the corpses, tidied the rows and swept the floor, clearing out the far corner where field mice had had a field day eating field maple seeds. The heap of seed wings was so big I had visions of gigantic roly-poly mice staggering around the polytunnel giggling. Or was that the effect of breathing in too many mould spores?

Wrong plant, wrong place. Fail.
Fail and Epic Fail
I know that in a previous episode I have boasted about the high survival rate in the outdoor pots. This is still true but I did gamble with a few things this year: The phormium in the big pot on top of the well was very exposed to the elements and is looking moribund. I now regret using such a large specimen (which had been ripped from another pot in the summer of 2010) of dubious health and hardiness in such a prominent position. To borrow the terminology of my sons and their friends this is a 'fail'.
Epic Fail

By the same token the large Wisley Gardener's Pot containing an Astelia chathamica 'Silver Spear' by the office door really should have been brought indoors. This is an 'Epic Fail'. Even though I am pretty sure it is dead and it looks absolutely awful I'm going to wait a bit longer before I remove the dead leaves and dig up the plant because You Never Know. January and February for certain plants is when life hangs by a thread and you can save a plant by resisting the temptation to poke about in its innards. Equally you can finish a struggling plant off by pruning off the dead-looking bits, thus leaving the inner bits, which were just about surviving, without any protection - Hebe and Pittosporum are both in the "Don't touch until you're absolutely sure it's dead" category.
Pittosporum - may still be OK...

But I'm not dead yet!
If you really want to know if a shrub is dead you can try gently scraping the bark with a fingernail - if there is a green layer under the brown it is still alive. Even if you see no green some shrubs are good at sprouting from very low down so my advice to concerned gardeners is if in doubt leave it alone for a bit. I find it hard to follow my own advice because I hate to see a sad plant on display at work. Sometimes I lose patience and hoick it out - I did that this week with the rosemary hedge behind the garden bench. It always had annoying gaps in it because the plants in the flowerbed behind lean on it in the summer and it was looking bruised after the snow so I had fun digging it out and then asking my colleagues if they could spot the difference - well you have to make your own entertainment sometimes...

Even if horticultural death and destruction surround you just look at the brave little bulb shoots and take heart. Narcissi are beginning to show themselves now, Rene (our bulb expert from the Netherlands) gave us a collection of historical Narcissi and I'm really looking forward to seeing them in flower. I put small pebbles over them to keep those fat mice out and it seems to have worked. Spring is on its way!
Here they come


  1. ooooh a sign of spring, just what I needed!!

  2. Hello Harriet,
    I saw that you have taken care of my new Dutch Gems. It is good to notice that the pots you you filled with the daffodils are outside. Catching the rain or snow water that they need to root and develop to bloom in the early spring.
    The pebbles you use are not only good against mice but also to keep the heat out and to keep the pot moist. This protect the new rooted bulb to dry out. In freezing weather the pots can dry out! Small wood pieces can also be used ( no cacoa nut schells, they get mouldy).