And all for the price of a pint


AS we steam headlong into winter, is your cup half empty or half full?

The question is posed because many people are adversely affected by the onset of shorter, colder days. This condition, recognised by the very appropriate acronym SAD (seasonal affective disorder), is not to be treated lightly and we all have our own way of dealing with it.

Dogwood and birch.

Dogwood and birch.

There’s no dawn chorus to welcome the day and the sun, like ourselves, seems to be ever so lazy in rising. So it’s the central heating system cranking into action that greets many of us good morning. Once there’s enough light to encourage movement from under a warm duvet to the gloomy world beyond, there is at least the prospect of a fast-boiling kettle and a cup that cheers in the offing. But if that is not incentive enough these dank autumn mornings, try visiting the local plant centre which should have enough colour and scent to make the bitter pill of approaching winter easier to swallow.

There you will find seasonal potted indoor plants to brighten up the living room or conservatory, bulbs to pot up and prolong the indoor display, and all manner of hardy specimens to enliven the beds and borders.

A well-constructed spray or bunch of flowers is still capable of lifting the spirits and very acceptable but, sadly, has a limited vase life. Not so several of the seasonal potted plants available on the winter market. For example, cyclamen, orchid, azalea and poinsettia are all perennial which, in theory, can be encouraged to entertain for several years – something to bear in mind when baulking at the cost of a plant.

Quite recently, while standing over an offer of two cyclamen for £3, the inevitable comparison sprang to mind. How many Mars bars, pints of best ale or glasses of ‘firewater’ does that represent and which will last longest? Suffice it to say the offer was accepted without hesitation.

There are cyclamen plants growing indoors locally that are several years old and have huge corms. They began flowering in October and with a little care, including feeding, this will continue until the threshold of spring. Keep them going by offering plenty of daylight, a room temperature between 10 to 15 Celsius and avoiding watering from the top as the corm is easily damaged.

Stand the plant on a two centimetre layer of pea gravel in a drip tray or cache pot and only water at the base, up to the gravel level. The plant draws up all the moisture it needs through capillarity.

After some months of flowering, give your cyclamen a rest by withholding water and allowing it to dry off completely. Ours go under the greenhouse bench, the pots on their sides to avoid drips, and remain there in dry state until September arrives. That’s when new compost is used to pot them up and get growth under way again.

Months ago we introduced a phalaenopsis orchid in full glorious bloom to the conservatory and the appearance has never changed. This, despite the temperature soaring to 30 Celsius during an unexpected mini Indian summer, and hovering around five degrees quite recently. Not surprising really, they have an exotic aura but there are several types that survive and perform with the minimum of heat. Phalaenopsis and cymbidium are ideal for beginners.

Many species need a little extra cultural care but it is a myth that they are all difficult to grow. Out of the 100,000 types in existence 20 or so can be cultivated in our homes. Some of these are on display at Heighley Gate Garden centre at present and if orchids are your thing, they represent good value for money.

Potted Azalea indica spends all summer outdoors but you can’t see the container, it is plunged to below soil level. The outcome of this is an autumn plant in robust health and fresh from a change of scenery, when we bring it in from the cold to bloom again. Bear this in mind as you examine them on the plant centre display bench right now. Do they represent value for money? I’ll say!

Then we have the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), whose scarlet bracts are so popular at Christmas but actually last for many months. This is a perennial plant but you have to go through several hoops each year to achieve the brilliance of that initial display. One of these is to put it to bed early each day in a dark cupboard, thus shortening the day length, to encourage the colour element.

We are running out of time to plant up a bowl of hyacinths. Get them into a dark, cold place for two months to encourage roots then wean them into the light in time for Christmas flowering indoors. Next opportunity will be around yuletide when ready-forced specimens are sold individually.

Whichever route you take finish the bowl off by adding fresh moss from your lawn to the surface, and natural material to support the flowering spikes. We find twigs of the deciduous shrub Spiraea arguta unobtrusive and ideal for this. They even oblige by rooting in the process and transfer to the open garden when the show’s over.

As for the spent hyacinths, they’re not wasted either. Once the risk of hard frost has passed, we transfer them to an area around a native birch and whinstone block where previous plantings thrive.

The result is flowers halfway in size between a patch of bluebells, which grow nearby, and a cultivated hyacinth.

In the garden there has been a general air of winding down in recent weeks with some edible crops being harvested and the colour spectacle that precedes leaf fall unfolding. But don`t think for one moment that this applies to all plants. Each season has its stars and the toughest of all, those that shine in winter, are just beginning to emerge.

Flowers of Erica carnea, the so-called winter heather, are shaping up nicely, and a large group of Erica x darleyensis is in bloom. Both will see us through to March quite easily, providing oodles of stems for miniature arrangements in the process.

The yellow-green stems of dogwood (Cornus stolonifera Flaviramea), now clear of leaves, contrast with the flaky white paper bark of Betula jacquemontii and a dark red dogwood Cornus stolonifera. As the bare framework of a deciduous viburnum emerges, it highlights the presence of exquisitely-scented flower clusters. And in the garden front of house, you can hone in on the golden racemes of Mahonia Charity by simply following your nose.

We are drawn to winter sweet and witch hazel in similar fashion but there is one evergreen that brings us to our knees in admiration. That is the low-profile and low-growing Sarcococca humilis. It is commonly called Christmas box and has the tiniest white flowers, but they punch way above their weight. If you could bottle and sell the exotic fragrance they exude you’d make a fortune.