FAKING UP SOUTHERN COMFORT


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David Stuart

 

Ah, summer living... Well, those occasional summer afternoons outdoors or on the balcony when Scotland doesn't seem such a daft place to be. The fantasy fades only when you get driven indoors by the cold or the midges too soon after seven. Nevertheless, it's all made far more fun if you have some decent pots by the seats. Whatever our climate, the plants (chosen wisely) don't seem to worry, giving at least a passable imitation of the ones you remember on the terrace at Bellagio, or Rio, of wherever your summer lingers in the mind's eye.

What you grow in summer pots is determined absolutely by what you can offer them over the winter. If you have no storage at all, then annuals, bulbs that need drying off, or rhizomes that do the same can still give you a glamorous show far more adventurous than a couple of tuberous begonias and some cheap bedding pansies. There are many very easy annuals that look good and last well in generous pots; nothing can be much better than a big pot of nicotiana. The floppy ones look far more elegant than the morose bedding sort, and their perfume starts to billow forth in the late afternoon, when you might have time to enjoy it. Pure white ones look best of all. Another simple standby is the 'Marvel of Peru' (or 'four-o-clock flower', from the time of its opening). Mirabilis jalapa will, from seed, give you glamourous and headily scented tubs in eight weeks or so, and though the flowers can be brilliant scarlets and cerise, there is plenty of greenery to keep things cool. It's also easy to try some of the major 'pot' bulbs. The exotic looks of the galtonias work well potted, with spikes of heavy petalled jade green bells in Galtonia princeps and G. viridis (just starting here), or white in C. candicans. Dry them off in early October, then replant in April. The same policy will also give you splendid pineapple lilies (Eucomis species), flowering later in the season, but causing a stir wherever they're seen. Once uncommon, they now seem more easily available; flowers purple and spotted, or in shades of yellowy green. All the spikes are topped with a knot of dark leaves.


And then there's all the proper lilies, though it's usually better to leave these in their pots over winter. Easiest are the handsome spotted Lilium tigrinum in shades of orange, scarlet or yellow, the white and strongly perfumed L. formosanum, L. longiflorum (which can get tall, though seems rarely to need staking), and the sumptuous L. regale. All grow like grass from seed, so you can have generous quantities for no money.

Things get even more fun if you can clear a bit of space in the garage to overwinter pots - assuming that building doesn't fall too far below freezing. Even the tender sorts of agapanthus, whether you've summer room for whopping Agapanthus africanus, or need smaller cultivars like the dark blue 'Isis' or the gold-edged leaf sort called 'Golden Rule', seem to survive quite happily, dried off and dormant.

Even if you can't stand dahlias, you're likely to fall for the wonderful chocolate-scented Cosmos atrosanguineus (we hear people calling it the 'Chocolate plant' - ugh), with its velvety brown-red flowers. It's fairly hardy, but survives reliably with us scarcely watered and rarely frozen. But then, even some of the verbenas can be almost dried off and stored in half light in the garage, whether you like the shrieking violet-pink of the unperfumed 'Sissinghurst', or the marginally sublter tones of 'Pusey' or 'Laurence Johnston', or dark and scented 'Hidcote Purple'. There are many new colours in the pipeline for marketing, so it's a genus to watch.

Of course, if you've a cold greenhouse, then you're laughing, both at cold evenings, midges, and, if it's big enough to sit in, then trying to be outdoors at all in spring and autumn. Not all Mediterranean tub plants do well outdoors; oleanders, for instance, will, just, flower outdoors in Scotland but they only look astonishing when they oversummer under glass too. Olives will flower, but barely fruit. But why bother, when you have magnificences like the sphaeralceas, or the malvas, or Vita Sackville-West's favourite Malvastrum lateritum, glossy green leaves, and curious peach coloured flowers.

But best, look for seed of the astonishing Geranium maderense. There are various forms, the better ones with large magenta flowers. All are rather biennial, but not to worry: with its exuberant sprawl of deep green almost pellucid leaves (scarlet in autumn and if the plants get starved), what you want are the huge sheaves of nearly butterfly sized flowers for all of the summer (collect a few seed for next season, and for friends, though the plant will distribute them around the garden).

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Copyright david stuart 2004

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