This evening it was my turn to hear somebody else talk. The speaker at my garden club was Chris Lane, a nurseryman and member of the RHS woody plants committee whom I'd previously heard talking about witch hazels at Plant Heritage. Tonight's lecture was supposed to be about wisteria, but as the clock ticked towards half past seven and the group of muttering people was still gathered about the projector while the only image coming up on the screen was the message that there was no input, alternating with the brand name of the projector, it became clear that there was a technical hitch.
I am so glad that the projector I have for charity talks runs directly off a memory stick so that I don't have to mess around trying to get it to speak to my laptop, or even search for the presentation in the laptop. Switch on, stick in the USB portal in the back, the full menu of slides comes up automatically, I scroll over to the first slide and click, then all I have to do to move on a side is click right or left to go back. As long as I don't press any other buttons nothing can go wrong (unless the bulbs fails).
After ten minutes it was decided that the lecture would proceed without slides. Chris Lane coped very well. He knows an immense amount about the cultivation and propagation of woody plants, he already has four national collections and is about to go for a fifth, so telling us about wisteria and anything else that took his fancy for three quarters of an hour was barely going to scratch the surface of his knowledge. It must have been stressful, though.
I did learn some useful things about wisteria, and some things that were interesting to know but didn't require any action on my part. The main action point was that I must check my young plant being trained up a scaffolding pole to form a standard, and if there is more than one main stem I should untangle them, select the best and prune the others out. If the plant is allowed to grow up with multiple stems twisting round each other the likelihood is that the weakest stem will eventually be strangled and die. Once dead it will rot, which can in turn open the way for other rots. Best never to let a wisteria twist around itself, or around any supporting wires. I already knew enough to know my plant should be tied to the side of the scaffolding pole and not permitted to grow around it.
I also learned that wisteria can be pruned extremely hard, should the need arise because the plant had got completely out of hand or you needed to do building works. I don't currently have such a plant, but it's handy to have heard it from the horse's mouth for future reference. And I discovered why the wisteria growing up our wild cherry might have been so slow to flower, before this year producing quite a lot of flowers but all hidden inside the tree so that I only saw them when I stood directly underneath and looked up. Apparently they tend to keep climbing and not really start flowering until they've reached the top of whatever they're climbing up. Once they sense they've got to the top they begin the business of flowering. Now that ours has reached that stage it should grow out to the sides of the tree, and within a couple of years we should start to get a good display.
Wisteria do indeed sense where they're going. Or at least, they are programmed to grow upwards, and programmed to twine around their support. If you have ever grown one you will know they make immense quantities of thin, whippy, fast growing extension growth. If these shoots don't encounter any kind of support then after a couple of metres they stop getting any longer, and the plant tries again and sends out a fresh shoot somewhere else.
They will grow happily on almost any kind of soil except pure chalk. Acid, alkaline, sandy, clay, all fine. They don't need much feeding, being members of the pea family and able to fix their own nitrogen. Chris Lane prunes his up to three or four times in the summer, when the extension growths become unmanageable, and finds they don't then need much winter pruning, if any. When asked why all the books and the RHS's own advice pages said to prune in winter he suggested that that had been the view once, and subsequent books had simply copied it rather than the authors describing from their own experience what they did that worked. He grows his wisteria on poles, and prunes them with shears to save time. He said they flowered very well.
So it was an entertaining evening, and I didn't miss the slides particularly. The important thing was the ideas. I can always go away and look at images later on the internet. Chris Lane has a book coming out on wisteria, but not until 2018.