Thursday, 31 March 2011

Probably the best plant description ever.

There are two running battles in my house.  The first, as I have mentioned before, is between my OH and the plants. I would like to think this was for my attention, but sadly it has more to do with her wish to be able to walk around without being stabbed or scratched by plants.  The second is between the agaves, aloes and echeverias for the top spot in my affections.  In terms of top plant, aloes have just leapt into the lead. The reason for this sudden change is this stunning plant

Aloe viper, from the stable of Kelly Griffin, and having seen one in the flesh it is now top of my wish list. I will let Xeric Growers describe it as it is their plant "This new Aloe Hybrid is one worth waiting for. The large highly contrasting raised red bumps are very distinct and set this great new offering apart from previous hybrids. We selected the name 'Viper' for this cultivar because it just looks like it is bleeding from every orafice. The raised red bumps appear to be eruptiong from the bright green leaves as if the plant had been injected with a deadly venom and is about to explode." As you can see they have gone for the soft, gentle approach to describing this plant!

If you live in the USA order one now, if for no other reason than you will make me very jealous.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

And so the fun begins

It's spring, so what else should my mind turn to but sex.  Don't worry I am still talking about plants, as the echeverias are now getting into full swing with more flowering every day and so I am starting to think about what crosses I to try this year. Last year I went a bit mad and tried countless different ones, each flower stem had a little bit of paper attached with the cross neatly written out.  Even with this it was difficult to keep track and I only end up germinating a couple of crosses and sadly they were not as successful as my first attempt.

This photo shows one set of hybrids, the back row contains the parents echeveria lilacina on the left and deresina on the right. The attributes I liked about were the colour of lilacina and the larger flowers of deresina.  The front row shows a couple of the resulting hybrids and while the colour is good, the flowers are the small ones from lilacina. It seems it is not uncommon for certain varieties to be dominant in the resulting hybrid. Someone who knows a lot more than me recently told me that echeveria agavoides tends to dominate in hybrids and it has proved true for me.

These echeveria deresina x agavoides sadly look like very plain agavoides, they have even lost the nice colour the parents had. So as I look at the plants coming into flower, this year I am putting a bit more thought into what I want, I am a bit like a kid in a candy shop.  I'll have a nice big blue rosette

But those flowers have to go,  maybe some nice big yellow ones:

Or perhaps take the good flowering lilac one

and add some hardiness from one of the few UK hardy varieties.

As space is the perpetual problem here, this plant echeveria rosea is an obvious choice as resulting hybrids, even if not that different in looks any increase in hardiness to other varieties would be a benefit.  I dream of a garden full of echeveria hardy to UK winters.  So while I wait for the flowers to open, and get my paint brushes ready, I will give some more thought to which plants may work.  Who knows I may even do a bit of reading to increase me chances.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The sempervivums are back

Assuming they have not turned to mush, which is a big assumption after this winter, many succulents look great all year.  I find it reassuring to be able to look out at the agaves and yuccas at any time of year and see them looking good.  It is not so true for other plants especially the alpines.  Over the last couple of years I have collected quite a few sempervivums, and noticed there is a huge difference between the varieties in the way they cope with winter. Some hardly change at all, while others shrink right back leaving a clump of dead leaves.  Come spring those that have not shrunk back often change colour giving some welcome spring hues. To celebrate their return here are a couple of my favourites.

This pot of sempervivum ciliosum is filling out nicely and hasn't shrunk back at all.  Lots of new offsets as well, so should look great in a few months.

This one is sempervivum lively bug, can't help smiling every time I read the name. It has gone a very good maroon colour right now, sadly this will not last long and it will be green for most of the summer. It is lovely and furry.

I keep meaning to do something creative with these little plants, I love the blog posts showing the amazing ways people use them in pictures, walls, wire frame animals. Who knows maybe this will be the year I finally get around to it, although I wouldn't hold your breath.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A little bonsai echeveria

One of the things I love about this time of year is bringing the plants out of their winter protection, repotting and tidying them up. There is something very satisfying about looking at your plants after doing this, even if they're not at their best the promise is there. I can potter like this for hours, often using tweezers to remove dead and damaged leaves.  My OH watches this with some bemusement as I like to keep the pots immaculate and yet am perfectly happy to leave the rest of the garden scruffy, (and my voluntary contribution to cleaning inside the house is lets just say limited).

The most extreme form of my tidying are attempts to sculpt or bonsai plants. This started through the lack of space and needing to keep plants from growing too quickly.  Most plants I just try to slow down,  but there are a few where this has resulted in plants growing considerable smaller than usual. One I have been playing with over the last couple of years is an echeveria glauca brevifolia. This is basically a small form of echeveria glauca.  Here it is in 2008.

Every year I repot it, trimming the roots slightly to allow it to stay in the same pot.  This is it today:

The largest head is about 2cm which is about a quarter of the size of the plants I have planted out. It gets better every year with the head becoming more defined. I feel I now need to decided what to do with it.  Sadly there are more heads one side than the other as you can see from this next photo.

So I am contemplating cutting out the middle row of heads, as it is these that are very one sided.

As I have said many times before, I can rush things like this only to regret it afterwards.  Maybe it time to actually leave one alone to get on with it.  If I stopped all pottering with the potted plants then the rest of the garden may stand a chance of actually being looked after.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The work horse of the agave world

Like all of life in the agave world there are the plants that get all the attention and those that do the work.  It is a simple trap we all fall into, posting pictures of that elusive plant we have been after for year, or some new variegate and forgetting about the plants that have been the backbone of our gardens or are actually hardy. So in the hope of redressing the balance I thought I would give one of those overlooked plants it's 15 minutes in the spot light.

So let me introduce agave parryi a plant almost every one who has ever looked at agaves knows about.  It is found in almost every garden center and is only behind agave americana in terms of availability. One of the reasons it is so common is that it is one of the hardier varieties and as such is planted out in dry beds throughout the world. We all rely on it but tend to not give it a second thought.  But look again, few agaves have the range of forms that you find in parryi.  This is the plain green form

This is probably the one most commonly sold, but the leaf shape can vary greatly from thin to almost round. If you don't like the green they come in blue as well.

Surely with that pale blue colour it deserves attention despite being a work horse! This is the only agave I am currently allowing to form a clump and I think if they all stay as blue as the mother then they will rightly attract a lot of attention. Then there are the named varieties, one of my favourites is parry HK1684 (the collection number)

This one tends to have thinner leaves and a good pale blue colour with the added bonus of dark red / burgundy spines.  I saw a photo of someone elses and had to track it down, thankfully they are easy to find. Although not as fast as the normal form they are quick growing once they settle. This one is left under a simple rain cover over winter and never marks (the marks on the lower leaves were there when I bought it). There are a couple of other varieties if you want to make sure you have the full set, one being a more compact form called var patonii, the plant below belongs to a friend.

It is a very distinctive form with thick terminal spines.  Strangely you rarely see this offered in the plain form and are more likely to see the variegated form of a parryi var patonii

Both of these are slow by agave parryi standards, although thankfully they do speed up a bit each year and they can pup from a small size.  The other variegate you will commonly find (partly do to tissue culture now) is agave parryi cream spike.

While this is my lopsided one it can be difficult to tell the difference between this and the other variegated forms coming onto the market and many believe they are all the same form being given different names in different parts of the world. I have limited my searching to these two variegated forms because of this, although a medio-picta form with a central white stripe would probably be welcomed with open arms if I found one.

You may feel we have strayed with the variegated forms. Many people group them with the other pretty plants giving them protection over winter.  No matter how pretty, they are still agave parryi and as such should all have a good cold hardiness.  To test this, I left an agave parryi var patonii variegate and a cream spike out next to the my HK1684 and both came through this terrible winter without any problems at all. From now on all of mine will be outside, all-be-it under a rain cover, freeing up a bit of space in warmer locations for the softer plants.

So next time you look at agave parryi don't just think of it as part of the hardy back bone of your dry bed,  remember it may be a work horse but can also be a thoroughbred.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Echeveria hybrids first flowers

Having spent a few days on the beautiful Dorset coast coast I was going to post about that.  Then I got home to find that my echeveria hybrid is flowering.  I posted about the hybrid before and how pleased I was about its development. So waiting for its first proper flowering season is the last piece of the puzzle and as the Dorset coast will still be there for a few days longer (hopefully) I thought I would show the flowers first.

Echeveria flowers take different forms,  this type would fit in the shepherd's crook style due to the distinctive shape. They match their mother in that respect and are the same as echeveria pulidonis.  The yellow colour is similar as well, although given that echeveria rosea also has yellow flowers that is no surprise.

There are quite a few flower stalks which is always good and the flowers themselves are bigger than for plain pulidonis. It would have been nice if they were a little more different,  but I can't complain that much. They are flowering earlier than Pulidonis although that could just be this year,  it will take a couple of years to confirm their exact flowering period.

At this point I should really be pollinating the flowers with others from the same batch of hybrids.  Then growing the seeds and repeating two or three times.  Then the seeds should hopefully be stable and come true if grown else where. This is how you ensure that seeds produce a standard set of plants and is why producing new hybrids is such a slow process.  This year though I am going to have to wait and all propagation is going to have to be through offsets.  I have taken 6 pups off already and these will be grown to give me a good collection of plants. Maybe next year I'll start mass production.

As for the name, you may be wondering what I decided to call it.  In the end the voting went for echeveria adonis blue. Who knows one day it may appear in a garden center near you.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Clumps or single plants?

When I brought home the pots of agave utahensis at the weekend my OH commented on one of the pots crammed full of plants and how good they looked as mass of leaf and spine. What struck me most was that when I look at the same pot I see a mess and that you can not see the true shape and structure of the indivual plants. This got me thinking about why most people seem to keep agaves as individual plants instead of clumps.

One of my obsessions is keeping my potted agaves as neat as possible, removing leaves, constantly looking at each plant checking for anything that may damage them and removing any offsets as soon as they are big enough (or in my impatience often before). I have always just removed the offsets out of habit, it never crosses my mind to leave them to form a clump.  I don't do this with any other succulents, I have some lovely clumps of aloes and echeverias.  In fact I often damage the roots of other succulents to try and force clumping.  So why not agaves?

For me I suspect it could be something to do with the strong structural form of agaves.  Looking at the plants I like,  they tend to be the more defined structured plants.  No doubt I have mentioned several times that I like the order and neatness they bring (no doubt followed by laughs from my OH as she looks around the mess inside the house).  I think you would loose this order in a clump and maybe that's what stops me.

Strangely in the ground I am more relaxed and the agave parryis in the front have several pups which while I have considered removing them, I have never bothered.  Dry beds, no matter how hard you try never seem to reach the level of neatness you get in pots and so I try not to replicate them, letting the plants grow a bit more naturally.

So are there plants that deserve to be in clumps? One is agave attenuata, there is a lovely clump at Kew and its softer form seems to lend itself to clumps.  But thinking about it imagine some of the other clumps you could have; a clump of agave kissho Kan variegates would look pretty good,  and don't tell her but maybe my OH is right. Imagine a perfectly formed clump of agave utahensis var eborispina. It would definitely be a talking point!

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Getting carried away

Well it was always going to happen, no matter how much my OH wished otherwise, I had to make my first purchase of the year at some point. I have been good up until now and held off for as long as possible.  Then yesterday I popped down to one of my local nurseries. It is a weird place mostly a normal garden center but the owner is an avid succulent collector and has used part of the nursery to store spare or unwanted plants.  I have very mixed feelings about it, on one front it is an excellent source of affordable plants (many of my larger and rarer purchases have come fro here), on the other the plants have been ignored and many have died and been binned. It is such a waste and I hate seeing how many amazing and often rare plants have just been left to die. Anyway I posted before about agave utahensis, showing this picture

I had an idea that I had seen some in among the other plants at the nursery and so popped along with a friend to see what was still around. It turned out I as not wrong, and I don't know if it was seeing the plants being so unloved, or something else but I bought one or two:

Do you think I have enough to keep me going?  Before my OH gets too concerned they are not all for me, I have a small group of friends and we try to help each other out.  One of the things we do is to keep an eye out for plants we know the others are looking for. So many of these will be making their way to other parts of the country. The source means that the plants are not labelled so it is very much guesswork,  but there seemed to be three varieties.  The first with the very long terminal spines:

Then a blue version, which at least at this size is my favourite:

And finally the short spine version:

It is going to be great fun trying to untangle these; there are about 20 plants in one of the pots. I will leave those for some other brave soul, but I did untangle one pot.

This pot was full of the longer spined variety and i am still pulling splinters out of my fingers.  It was worth it though:

Having so many plants to play with will give me an opportunity to explore this plants hardiness.  It is well known that agave utahensis is one of the most cold tolerant plants, the one plant I owned up to now has been left under a rain cover every winter and never has any problems.  How it will cope with a British wet winter is unknown.  It is a very slow growing agave and most people are unwilling to risk old plants, I should have enough to mean loosing one would not be an issue. A few of these will be planted out in the dry bed once it warms up a bit more and we shall see how it does.

The shopping year has started, the question is after yesterdays little extravagance  will I be allowed out unsupervised again?

Friday, 11 March 2011

Photo Friday

The start of the flower of one of my favourite plants today, Echeveria Rosea.  I was going to ask if anyone could guess what it was, but decided that was a bit cruel.  I will have to do a full post o this one at some point.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A question of hardiness

They say owners are often like their animals, I wonder if the same is true of gardeners?  I know that over the last few weeks as it has warmed up, my interest in plants has started in earnest again.  I am out in the garden more, reading websites and generally starting to think about new purchases. It's a bit like coming out of hibernation. But is it too early?  We have been having lovely sunny days, but frosts at night,  should I be retreating back under the covers and warmth for a few more weeks?

You see I have a confession to make,  I need heat. A bit of cold is nice for a change,  I can see the beauty in snow, but if it goes on for too long I find myself looking at holiday photos and wondering if I could get time off for a bit of winter sun. I imagine my poor succulents feel exactly the same, instead of a life in some warm climate they are forced to put up with frosts, snow and grey skys.

The cold hardiness of succulents is obviously an enormous topic and a very emotive one.  The last few winters in the UK will probably result in the books being re-written on what we can grow here. (I will save my rant on the minimum temperatures they supply with plants in the UK for another post). A while back I posted about how important I thought it was to learn from your plants and that perhaps the only real way to find out if a plant will cope is to learn from experience.  Having seen the damage last year and listened to others, I had a theory that one way to avoid damage at the mins I have (around -9) is to keep the snow out of the crowns.  So I placed fleece over the agave bed before the snow and removed it once it has stopped. This was the bed during the snow, you can just make out the fleece covering the agaves:

So far this seems to have worked, despite being the coldest December on record, here is the bed at the weekend:

Amazingly not only did all the plants come through unscathed, but there was almost no damage at all (I should really be posting this in a few months when all the danger of frosts and snow is past!)  When I compare this to last year,  or to plants and parts of the dry bed I did not cover, the difference is marked.  I really don't know what I did to deserve such luck, and when I speak to friends about what they lost I can't help but feel guilty to have got away with it. I hope some of it was due to actually watching my plants, learning from mistakes, experiments and talking to others about what their experiences. Some is simply due to the fact that my mins are manageable.

Speaking to others this winter has made me wonder what I would do if I had their minimums, would I cover the garden, or simply grew totally different plants?  But to tell you the truth I simply couldn't live somewhere with serious winters and I am sure my plants will breath a sigh of relief to hear it.

That is not to say I haven't learnt form this winter, it seems snow is not as light as you would think and while the agaves coped fine with the weight, one poor yucca did not.  Next time I will have to put a bit more thought in and give the fleece some support around the softer plants.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

First flowers of the year in the dry bed.

Continuing on the positive things happening in the garden the first of the alpines are starting to flower.  When the dry bed was originally planted I purely used succulents, but there were too many gaps so I added a few alpines. Many of these were removed as plants grew or I found other succulents to add, leaving only a few of my favourites.  By far the largest group of alpines were sempervivums and most of these were moved into a sort of trench added to the from of the bed.  These are just starting to grow after winter and it will be months before they look their best again.

The only other alpine I have more than one of are saxifragas which is a varied group of plants.  I have got a lot more selective lately and got rid of all the sprawling ones; they tend to look messy after a while and so were removed.  This only left a few neat clumps and it is these that tend to be the first flowers in the dry bed.  Some have neat delicate little individual flowers like the one here.

Others send out arching flower stalks on which flowers will open over the next few week.

I am not sure if it is because I only have the smaller varieties but I don't have any of the more dramatic forms which can have much larger flowers. I am helping build a rockery at work where there will be more space (something for a future post) and may use that to try out varieties before using them in the garden.

They may be small, but they are the start of the outdoors flowering season that will last for the next 8 months.  It is good to know that from now on there will always be some colour in the dry bed and pots.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The best and worst of times

I have a love / hate relationship with this time of year. One sunny days it is starting to feel like spring, but there is still a very real chance of hard frosts. Some plants are starting to wake up after a hard winter, others are starting to show the real winter damage and will succumb over the next couple of mouths. So walking around the dry bed at this time of year I just hope to come out with more positives than negatives. There have been enough negatives this year and so I thought it would be nice to concentrate on the positives today.

Looking around I noticed that some of the perennials are up which is definitely a positive. Even though they have been planted for three years now, I always worry that they will not make it through to spring.  To me they signal that everything is starting to wake up and are another nudge to start buying plants. Two of my favourites are eremurus stenophyllus and aspohdelus ramosus.

Aspohdelus ramosus has a fairly upright habit with pretty white or blue star flowers.  This one seems to clump without needing any care (which is good given the lack of care I give them).  It doesn't look much yet, but I will post updates when it flowers.

Eremurus stenophyllus on the other hand is a more sprawling plant which is suppose to have good spires of yellow flowers.  It has yet to flower for me, either because it is two young,  or more likely because it needs better care than I give it. Its thin spaghetti like leaves give something different to the neat compact leaves of most of the other planting, so it keeps it place flowers or not.

Now we just need to avoid any bad frosts.

Friday, 4 March 2011

An Indian Interlude

A few years back my OH and I were lucky enough to visit Kerela in Southern India.  I thought while decidedly un-spiky it would make a nice interlude. For those who don't know it, Kerela is India Light; in that it is a very gentle introduction to India for those who are not sure they could cope with the more intense aspects found in other parts of the country.

We started in what are called the backwaters,  an area of canals and small lakes a couple or hours outside the capital. Here everything revolves around the water.  We stayed in a home stay (which is basically living with a local family) right on the back of a canal and spent much of our time lazing in hammocks watching the world go by. This area is famous for its house boats, which used to be used for transporting goods and now transport tourists.

Houseboats on the backwaters

Just downstream from us was the local ferry, which was simply a large canoe.  One of the nicest things about this was that as part of the fare you had to help paddle.  It was the school run for many kids and every morning you would see them lining up in their pristine school uniforms, and it always seemed to be the youngest or smallest that ended up having to row.

School run

One of the joys of staying with a family (apart from the local food which was amazing) was being able to borrow their canoe and just join the locals on the water.

Cow bathing

Small canal in back waters

The canals over the last few years are having more and more problems with water hyacinths, while they look beautiful, they totally clog the canal and it is impossible to use them when they are like this.

Water hyacinths

Next it was Trivandrum the capital for a couple of days and the main thing here was the temples.  Kerela is mainly christian but there are still a few large temples and where ever you find them there is always colour.

Flower temple offerings

Sree Padamanabha swami Temple, Trivandrum

Sree Padamanabha swami Temple, Trivandrum

Then it was off to one of the national parks Periyar in the hope of seeing some wild animals.  Actually it often felt like you were the exhibit as the monkeys would come and look in through your window.

Monkeys at hotel window, Periyar

One of the highlights was a boat trip out onto the lake and seeing a family of elephants swimming between two islands, I can't help thinking that they are snorkeling.

Swimming elephants


The lake was kind of ire with the dead trees protruding above the water.

Periyar lake

We did go for a days trekking in the hope of seeing some more large animals, but sadly didn't see any. I suspect due to the fact that our guides carried their mobile phones and every couple of minutes a not so tuneful ring tone would be heard scaring away any animals. But the scenery was spectacular and it felt like at least we burnt off one or two of the calories we had piled on with all the food.

Next it was off up into the mountains and the tea plantations.  Here we stayed in another home stay which was a lovely little house.

Rose Gardens home stay, Munnar

The owners run a small nursery, and they could not wait to proudly show off their rows or neatly arranged roses. These initially seemed to be their pride and joy and they seemed a little disappointed that I, as an Englishman, didn't appreciate them more.  However their disappointed didn't last long as when they took us around to the back of the house we were greeted by a magnificent spice garden. It was a great opportunity to see what food a family usually grows and how some of the fruits and spices grow.

Tommy with some of his bananas

They also had a shade house which was stuffed full with Anthuriums of all colours.  It seems that this was one of their true loves and they were producing darker and darker flowers. We spent quite some time looking around and talking about his plants.

Tommy's shade house

Just down the road was little viewing point which was not a bad place to while away the last of the light.


During our stay we went out for a few walks through the tea plantations,  with the distinctive rows of bushes interspersed with trees to provide some shade.

Finally it was back to the second town for a few days before flying out.  We just happened to be there for the main festival at one of the temples and given my OHs love of elephants this was probably her highlight.  We had seen banners up all around the area showing the temple elephants that would be there, and it seems that these elephants are considered real stars and even have a billing order. We spent a good few hours at the celebrations and it was loud, crowded and very friendly.

Shiva Temple, Kochi

Temple elephants


As it was getting late we ventured out to look for some food, and as usual in India were adopted by a lovely group who helped us with what all the food was,  and I think had great fun as we very carefully attempted a few of the deep fried chillies!

Fast food, chillies

You couldn't end without showing another photo of the amazing colours you find every where.

The only disappointment with the trip was the distinct lack of succulents everywhere we went, but when that is the only thing you have to complain about you know it has been an amazing holiday!