Nurture plants for the best rewards

Part of the challenge in gardening is discovering the needs of different plant types.

There is plenty of information available but putting it into practice is not always as easy as it sounds because there are so many imponderables, such as soil types and weather conditions.

But oh how sweet it is when a special plant flowers, or we experience the first taste of a crop we’ve never grown before. That’s when the expression ‘green fingers’ has some meaning because we’ve done the right thing at the right time.

Some plants are tough and will settle down to year-round life in the garden no matter what the weather throws at them.

Many ornamental types come under this category where they can be sprayed to remove household dust from their leaves.

Even then, we fret in case they catch a chill.

Yet another group of plants must spend winter in the warmth but benefit from a summer season outdoors.

Now is the time to start thinking of bringing them in from the cold. ‘Them’ in my case means a lemon tree, Azalea indica, which flowers over winter, and Ficus Benjamin – the small-leaved rubber plant.

Each will have benefited from the summer break that began in mid-June when the sack barrow was used to transport the biggest pot to the garden.

If they are in smaller, manageable containers, best plan is to dig a hole and plunge it just below soil level to avoid constant dry compost.

The lemon stands on the patio so lots of water is required, but it’s worth the effort because it performs so well afterwards.

When the plant went out in June, it carried four large fruits and they were removed in August.

This, and the change of temperature when it returns to the conservatory, will stimulate new flower production and the accompanying fragrance. Daily hand-spraying during this period will aid pollination which leads to a new crop.

In past seasons, the lady of the house has turned the small bitter orange, calamondin citrus mitis, into marmalade, and the lemons have been used in cooking and drinks, but the August crop became lemon curd which has added a sparkle to morning toast.

The latest treat is a lemon sponge cake – good reason to nurture the plant through winter.

In essence, any citrus fruit tree can be grown in a conservatory. Just remember that confinement to a pot means it is totally reliant on you for food and water.

Soil-based compost is best for root anchorage and a good buffer against drying out.

Maintaining a minimum temperature of 5 Celsius will see it safely through winter and if you must keep it indoors all year round, remain alert for pests.

Regular use of a hand spray containing water only will deter them and keep the plant fresh.

Container grown lilies have been so successful for us that the number around this garden has increased year-on-year. We’d previously cultivated them in the border where they proved hardy so there was no need for lifting and storage of the scaled bulbs as winter approached.

This prompted us to try Stargazer, one of the highly-scented cultivars, in a pot, and it worked well. Lovely Girl and Muscadet have also become firm favourites.

Two years ago, there was what we termed ‘an artistic group’ of lilies advertised in the national press. It comprised Picasso, Monet and Cezanne, and claimed they were tree lilies, but in the first year they barely reached knee height. This time it’s different. All three have grown to eye-level but only ‘Cezanne’ has managed an acceptable floral display. Must contact friend John who bought the same collection to find how his are doing.

For many years, Alnwick was a horticultural backwater in terms of bringing big names from the gardening world to town, but thankfully that is all beginning to change as the Alnwick Garden becomes a must-visit place for those on the lecture circuit.

When BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time was broadcast from the garden last year, I informed current chairman Eric Robson that the show’s previous visit had been in the 1960s – too long a break! Up to ten years ago, we had to travel to them, now the personalities are coming to us.

It has been a delight to have broadcasters and writers such as Chris Beardshaw, Bunny Guinness and Adrian Bloom, almost turning up on the doorstep.

And when top garden designer Sir Roy Strong sat in the Alnwick Garden Pavilion alongside Jane, Duchess of Northumberland, in conversation last week, the audience was enthralled at being encouraged to join in – what a treat!

Here were two of the most creative people openly discussing the highs and lows of their respective projects.

The Duchess unwilling to accept any praise for achievement ‘because the garden is not finished yet’, and Sir Roy still coming to terms with his Herefordshire garden The Laskett being open to the public for ‘commercial reasons,’ when it was really developed as a private place for his late wife and himself.

The hour or so spent in their company was quite inspirational. We have been deprived of garden-orientated events such as this far too long. Well done the Alnwick Garden for leading the way.