Looking after tender varieties that continue to serve us so well

Penstemon.
Penstemon.

Self-preservation aside, there is also a strong new-year resolve to guide potentially tender plants that served us well last year, through whatever winter has to offer.

My list includes streptocarpus, plectranthus, fuchsia and penstemon. Priority here goes to a modest streptocarpus collection which is grown solely under cover and comprises 10 varieties.

Streptocarpus rooting.

Streptocarpus rooting.

They were sourced as plug plants from specialists Dibleys, the last batch coming from their 2013 stand at Chelsea Show.

These plants have such a wide range of attractive flowers that it’s so easy to become a collector of varieties without realising it. They’re displayed in the greenhouse, conservatory and rooms around the house from springtime to deepest autumn, this being the flowering period, but well before winter approaches, leaf cuttings are taken of each variety.

These are placed in an unheated, domed propagating tray, containing damp, gritty sand only, which is then moved into the conservatory.

As flower production winds down in the parent plants on display, a first move is made to see them safely through winter. They need a modicum of warmth and will not tolerate damp compost so they stand on the cold greenhouse bench, very dry, with a covering of fleece. As a final back-up, some are taken indoors where it’s warm.

Fuchsia magellanica.

Fuchsia magellanica.

Plectranthus coleoides is an old favourite pot plant with variegated leaves that have a distinctive scent. It is widely used in tubs and baskets for summer displays outdoors, the pendulous stems adding to its attraction. It is easily propagated from stem cuttings that will even root in water, but the parent plants struggle to survive without heat so they too share our winter warmth.

Many fuchsias are hardy enough to survive the frost; magellanica, riccartonii and Genii for example, but some are so special that we are loath to take the risk. That’s my reason for squeezing a few small pots of Tom West into the sunroom anyway! It has cream-edged green leaves with red and purple flowers. With foliage so pleasant to the eye, it looks stunning when grown well and displayed on the show bench.

Penstemons were very popular in the late sixties, but very few varieties were hardy enough to withstand winter frost so stem cuttings were taken in late summer to preserve favourites.

Now we are spoiled for choice during their resurgence with regular collection offers in the gardening press. Although they are a much hardier breed, reference those still standing in the February garden, I still take cuttings just in case!

Where did all these packets of seeds come from? It’s a question I seem to ask in late autumn every year while rummaging through the wicker basket they’re stored in. The exercise is important when compiling a new seed order, to avoid doubling up on something we already have. In an effort to solve the problem and save money, a decision was made to stop impulse seed purchases.

The problem is, gardening magazines often arrive with such freebies attached and there is a limit to the number of tomato varieties we wish to sow.

If you’re in the same boat, consider offering any spare packets to a gardening acquaintance who might use them. Before handing any over, check the sow-by date to avoid embarrassment should they fail to germinate. In terms of viability you can easily add a couple of years to that suggested for vegetables, but err on the cautious side with flowers.

Willpower, I believe, plays a big part in our sticking to new year’s resolutions. But a friend insists that is where we fail, because it’s more won’t-power we need!