Sunday, 23 September 2012

Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)

Living Frugally
Yew Growing On Rock

‘Outdoors, grow in fertile, well- drained soil in full sun.’ – this is a direct quote from a gardening book and it is referring to Buddleia. Now have a look at a derelict site and see the them growing through tiny cracks in concrete. Similarly, you can see the way they thrive in the mortar twenty feet up an old wall, accompanying the willow growing from the side of the chimney pot and the elderberry thriving in the gutter. My point is, that plants grow where they want, not having read the gardening books. If mankind were to be wiped out by some catastrophe, you can bet your life that in very few years signs of our civilisation would disappear under a forest of growth. The annoying thing, however, is that you can sometimes give the things 'perfect' conditions and they repay you by snuffing it.

Fig Tree Growing In Vertical Wall
While the Buddleias and others are simply opportunists, some plants have adapted to grow in what, to us, are poor conditions but for very good reasons. The moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) is a prime example and one useful to know about because it is probably the country's favourite houseplant. Its native habitat is in forests in the Himalayas, South East Asia and Northern Australia and, on the ground, the light is very poor due to the trees having filched it on the way. As this orchid, like most other plants, needs sunlight to photosynthesise the sugars which give the energy for growth, this presents a problem. It is solved by hitching a ride to the sun:  the plant simply grows on niches on the branches of trees, thriving in a compost of dead leaves and twigs, possibly enriched by the occasional bird-dropping butty.
Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)
Knowing about this native background gives us the logical make-up of a compost to grow the plant in: it should be airy, well drained and not too rich in nutrient. With this in mind, I usually make up a mixture of small broken birch twigs from the trees at the end of the garden, mixed with moss, a bit of leaf-mould and possibly some perlite. It may be interesting to further emulate natural conditions by encouraging the budgy to have the occasional bowel movement into the compost. However, teaching it the accuracy of a bomber pilot may take some doing. Another aspect of the natural habitat of this orchid is that it can be dry for long periods, highlighting how so many people manage to kill them - they over water.
The white aerial roots are capable of taking in water, so occasional spraying of these will relieve the stresses of a centrally heated room. They are a good indicator of the health of the plant and if they start to go brown, cut back on the watering and make sure it isn't standing in water. While most books recommend the addition of a high potash feed (tomato feed will do), I usually give a weak feed of a balanced fertilizer about once a month. An annual re potting is a good idea but resist the temptation to over pot - these plants thrive on a minimalist approach.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Climbing Plants

Be Adventurous

In the cause of scientific research, my youngest son leaned across his sister and opened the car window. This could be seen as being pretty unremarkable, except that we were going through a car-wash at the time. The findings of the experiment were: a. that bedraggled sisters pack a surprisingly hard punch and b. angry dads can affect ones finances by withholding pocket money.

It must be in the genes. My own experiments, this time in the seemingly safe environs of the garden, have sometimes proved to be equally disastrous. I feel strongly that the long list of rules the 'experts' compile are there to be tested. The garden is a personal art project and to be told that certain colours only work with certain other colour, or that, due to the current fashion, a particular plant is not to be used because its out of favour, is a bit of an imposition. You only need to look at how nature ignores all the rules in the countryside and comes up with stunning effects.

We had a bare patch of wall immediately next to the front door and I felt the front of the house would be improved if the hardness of the brickwork were to be relieved by some greenery. With this in mind, I set to and broke out a rectangle of concrete path to create a small bed against the wall. This was then planted with Virginia creeper ( Parthenocissus tricuspidata 'Veitchii'). It didn't require any trellis for support because the plant climbs like Spiderman, with little suckers which will stick to anything, including glass. This worked really well: in the summer the greenery did its job and was then followed by fiery autumn colour. The limitation, as I saw it, was that it is a deciduous plant, losing all its leaves in winter and leaving the wall looking as boring as it did originally. To remedy this, I planted a variegated ivy (Hedera helix 'Goldheart') about a foot away from the creeper. My idea was that, when the Parthenocissus lost its leaves, the brightness of the evergreen ivy would give the wall interest throughout the winter.

"You can't do that", said my sage gardening friends, as a man, "one of 'em 'll out compete the other for water and nutrients, leading to the weakest snuffing it".

However, in some ways, this experiment was a resounding success. Both plants grew with a competitive vigour that surprised us all. Unfortunately, they didn't know where to stop: a visit into the loft showed how ivy is happy to grow in extremely poor light conditions, while the creeper made its way round the front of the house and demonstrated its expertise in clinging to glass by colonising the bedroom window. Impervious to my argument that this could do away with the need for curtains and all the messing about they entail, my wife insisted I do something about it by 'cutting the damn things back." This, I think, is why there are more men scientists than women. Anyway, I climbed the ladder and cut it back to about two thirds up the wall. Unfortunately this became an annual necessity and, as I'm not keen on ladders and my wife is relentless when it comes to curtain substitutes, I eventually dug the whole lot out. On the positive side, I'd proved the experts wrong.

At our previous house, there was an unsightly telegraph pole actually touching our garden wall. I decided to test the properties claimed for Russian vine in being good at hiding eyesores, by planting one at the base of it. Again, this worked wonderfully, quickly and completely masking the pole. However,  I began to worry when it decided the pole wasn't enough and started to explore the potential of the wires emanating from it. As we were always telling the children, 'it's knowing when to stop'. The road was beginning to take on the look and feel of the Amazon rain forest when I solved that one. We moved.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Garden Therapy


It's hard to put your finger on what it is that makes being in countryside or in a garden more pleasurable than being in other settings. The best explanation I can put to it occurred many years ago when I was on a walk somewhere in the Macclesfield Forest area: it was a hot day and I'd walked a long way, so I lay down on  pine needles to rest.This was the perfect place to relax - it was completely silent.

At least I thought it was. However, after a few minutes of this 'silence', I realised it was far from that: the wind through the treetops was making a sighing sound not unlike that of waves on the shore; a curlew's liquid call drifted along the valley and, somewhere in nearby undergrowth a large insect or small mammal made foraging sounds. The more I tuned into what had been there all along, the more there was to hear. And this is what I came to refer to as the heartbeat of the earth. It outlined how my own 'reality' was very limited - restricted within a space helmet of my own making. Tuned into the heartbeat  I become part of something far greater:  my own life acquires a new perspective - problems are reduced when seen against the infinity of creation and, as a result, I feel peace.

The thing is, you don't need to be in the middle of the countryside to appreciate this good feeling, it can be achieved in the garden. The gardener is a control freak, and a relaxed walk around far too often becomes a listing of jobs: weeding here, plant supporting there, pest controlling somewhere else, and so on. Occasionally, try to just be there.
click to enlarge