Horticultural cold remedies
of flowers and enormous mopheaded blooms as well as spidery beauties. Most extraordinary of all was a single chrysanthemum trained to grow into a dome of 200 flowers, all equally spaced and destined to bloom simultaneously.
This is the art of Kiku and involves 11 months of leaf counting. As each stem from the main plant grows it is pinched when 11 leaves have developed. Imagine counting to 11 leaves in a forest of 150 stems and the risk of breaking one…
Yukie Kurashina, who trained as a horticulturalist at the NYBG, went to Japan to be taught the traditional techniques before helping to stage the annual Kiku exhibition in New York.
Some gardeners may shudder at such artificiality, but cultivating any flower in a controlled way is always intriguing. I grow auriculas, not particularly well, but with more care than I grow other things. They get individual clay pots and a place out of the rain in winter and out of the sun in summer. I do not go quite as far as those who show them. Like them, I do prop the flower stems with tiny twigs, but I draw the line at overlapping each petal with the same leading edge first. I am careful about watering, so that the grey green bloom on the leaves (the farina) is protected.
But whenever I have been to an auricula show I can see that the difference between growing something really, really well and the casual gardening most of us practise is enormous. As for chrysanths, I grow a few and wish I had managed to pot the poor ruined things in the kitchen garden before the first frost arrived. This is the sad moment of the year when flowers to pick are in short supply. I am reduced to spindle berries and hips and a few long lasting roses with plenty of Sarcococca leaves. The scented flowers have yet to appear.
But in Virginia I learnt a trick about prolonging the lives of flowers. There, dahlias and zinnias are picked and stored at 40F (4C) for up to 10 days. The temperature of the average fridge is about that, so next year, when it looks like the weather is about to shut down, I will collect the last zinnias and a few dahlias and put them in the fridge, along with paperwhites waiting their turn to perform, in bags. Keeping them cold ensures a staggered display until February, when hyacinths and other bulbs in pots get going.
November is the cruellest month (TS Eliot was wrong about April). Too much sweeping of soggy leaves, too many cold fingers and far too much bare brown earth. Maybe we should all plant more for this time of year. Cornish gardeners can grow Sasanqua camellias (another Japanese import). Mine, in a pot, turned up its roots.
But even before Christmas and the turning of the year, the earliest snowdrops are up and flowering and the adorable Viola corsica has seeded in cracks of the paving stones. I have potted some seedlings and put them on the top shelf of the ex-privy which houses the auriculas.
You can do a lot in what is technically an alpine house, where plants can be kept dry but need no heat. The door stays open all year, as do the windows. If the privy had not existed I might have adapted a garden shed, by giving it a glass roof and leaving the short south-facing side open. It is worth trying anything to keep the garden ticking for the next two months.
Special: The Kiku exhibition at NYBG, top left; Mary Keen’s auriculas in individual clay pots on display in the old privy