Tuesday, 28 May 2013

a day in the glass shed

The day promised to be wet, so I thought I might as well settle down and start sorting out the greenhouse, rather than start off working outside, and spend the first half of the morning wondering how hard it had to rain before I admitted defeat and gathered up my tools.  The greenhouse had got into rather a muddle.  I think this is the inevitable tendency of greenhouses, and by extension all covered growing areas, to judge from the polytunnels I've seen at work, and on a nursery visit organised by the Hardy Plant Society.

The tunnel on the far side of the car park, where customers are not admitted, but things that have been potted up or potted on are grown and  extra stock there isn't room for in the walled garden is held, is periodically tidied and reverts inexorably each time to chaos.  Newly potted iris, or geraniums, or whatever they are, are lined on the freshly swept Mypex fabric, and look incredibly neat and tidy.  While they root in, weed seeds land and germinate on the compost, and liverwort forms on the tops of the pots.  As the best and most advanced ones are taken out for sale, the remaining pots become increasingly gappy.  Some flower and run to seed, or even start to die down, without being sold in that season, since that's the nature of retailing.  A few fail to thrive, and never come up, or make a sad little attempt at growing some inadequate leaves, until eventually the manager pronounces them doomed.

The tunnel at work is generally pretty tidy, barring the problem corner, of which there always seems to be one.  Not so the commercial nursery I visited a few years ago.  That has since ceased trading, though I believe its difficulties were compounded by the tendency of the manager to drink away his takings in the local pub.  He had several polytunnels, all of them filled with a bewildering jumble of healthy shrubs and climbers, and plants so hopelessly old and pot bound that they were no longer fit for sale.  The spaces between the tunnels were a similar mixture of the good and the moribund.

So it goes in a greenhouse or tunnel used for propagation.  Plants start off, reach a peak of health and vigour, then decline if not potted on, and sometimes even then.  Things die, sometimes due to errors in watering, since it isn't practicable to lift every pot to check how wet each is, or the gardener misunderstands their needs.  Weeds take hold.  The greenhouse owner needs to be on top of the weeds, and the potting on, and it all takes time.

I was meaning to repot the dahlias this year.  I thought they could do with some fresh compost, and even bought a couple of bales in readiness.  Then I ended up running late with everything in the garden, because of the cold spring, and the dahlias still weren't repotted by the middle of May.  I worried that it was too late to do them now, since they must have started making roots, while simultaneously worrying that I had not watered them enough, and the tubers would have shrivelled and died.  I had been going very easy on the watering, given that in my mind they were still winter dormant and awaiting repotting.  Logically, I should have worried about one thing or the other, since they could not be simultaneously rooting into their old compost and shrivelling to nothing, but sometimes logic, like goodness, has nothing to do with it.

Some of the dahlias had made little shoots a few centimetres tall, while most of the others had shoots close to the surface of the compost, when I scrabbled around.  I decided they'd have to be top dressed and dosed lavishly with liquid feed, and that repotting would have to wait until next year.  Which does at least save me a job and quite a lot of compost.  A couple had failed, and investigating the pots I found a complete absence of roots, and vine weevil grubs among the compost.  The dead dahlias, plus their compost and weevils, went in bags to go to the tip.  Three poor little tubers I bought weeks ago, which had been sitting in their packets in the study ever since, proved to be still alive, slightly shrivelled but with tiny obstinate leaf shoots.  I was surprised and relieved in equal measure, and potted them up.  It is shameful for anyone who works in horticulture to be so remiss, but it has been a frantic, late spring and they just didn't get done when they should have been.

Some overwintering seed raised herbaceous plants, that I didn't manage to find a home for in the garden last year, died quietly in their pots.  It was a very long, cold winter, and it's hard to know how wet to keep pots. I may have erred on the side of caution, and let them dry out too far, or they may have ended up sitting wet.  Spent compost that is free from vine weevils goes on the compost heap.  Other plants I was afraid had died surprised me pleasantly by emerging into growth, so there were gains as well as losses.  An Anemone rivularis bought a couple of years ago from Avon Bulbs, which has alway teetered close to death, amazed me by sending forth several leaves.  I think that had definitely better take its chances in border soil sooner rather than later.  I had a bad run with potting around that time, and suspect that whatever reduced peat compost I was using was not up to the job.  There are some awful composts around, and even keeping a careful note of what brand you've used doesn't help, since the manufacturers keep switching ingredients and suppliers, or so a Which report on composts concluded.

Many but not all of the overwintering pelargoniums survived, and are producing new leaves now the weather's warmer.  I picked off the old, brown leaves, cut out the dead stems, and soaked them lavishly with liquid seaweed solution.  They will need feeding regularly through the summer.  It is so easy just to water everything with the hose to save time, I am not so good at feeding my potted plants as I should be.  I was shocked at how dry some of the pelargoniums were, since I have been watering them since the weather warmed up, but clearly not enough.

My final challenge for the day, which I did not complete, was to remove a potbound Agapanthus from its container without breaking the latter.  The pot is a rather nice one with a pie crust top, while the Agapanthus is a nameless hybrid picked out because it was a good, dark shade of blue.  I decided that on balance I attached more value to the pot than the plant.  Getting the plant out while keeping the pot intact is proving slow and difficult work, partly because Agapanthus roots tend to hang on to terracotta, but mainly because I had committed the cardinal error of potting something that would in due course need repotting in a pot that was narrower at the top than it was further down.  Don't do that.  If you are potting a long-lived species that you hope may grow, use a traditional flower pot shaped pot out of which the rootball will slide relatively easily, when the time comes.  Save the ones with wide middles and narrower necks for annual pretties which will simply be hauled out and composted when they've finished doing their stuff.  I speak as one who knows.

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