This blog reviews the latest products, plants and innovations in gardening. It also provides a link for my many gardening friends who are members of the GardenMessenger and Seedmessenger Yahoo groups and their sub-groups that I moderate.

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Location: Australia

I am a semi-retired UK botanical garden curator and former international horticultural consultant, who has worked extensively in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australia. I spend part of the year in Australia and part in Europe, mainly due to family and work commitments. I earn my living from writing and editing Internet copy, articles and books. I have written over fifty books on gardening and have been translated into twenty-four different languages. I am a former UK Garden Writer of the Year and a previous Quill & Trowel Award Winner from the Garden Writer’s Association of America. I am interested in developing gardening communities on the Internet and I manage the popular GardenMessenger Yahoo group, along with its various sub-groups like PondMessenger and SeedMessenger. I also edit International Water Gardener and its associated regional web-sites.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bulbs and Bonsai

The Dutch Flower Parade

Yesterday the Dutch bulb industry’s internationally famous annual Flower Parade took place. A great celebration of spring flower bulbs and of an industry that has forever stamped its identity upon The Netherlands. The procession comprised some twenty large floats and more than thirty decorated luxury cars, interspersed with marching bands. It took its traditional 40km route from Noordwijk to Haarlem. A great extravaganza of colour.

It is presently the peak of the bulb season in The Netherlands. Not, of course, the time for planting, except for gladioli, Ixia, Sparaxis and other summer flowering subjects. However, in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa it is time to get organised with planting preparations. Although spring flowering bulbs are popular down under, it is not Dutch bulbs that come immediately to mind, certainly in Australia. There most of the bulbs seem to be home produced, largely I suspect because of the complete reversal of the seasons, although with modern cool storage this should not be a serious impediment to trade. I guess a lot of the reason is the cost of transport, and then the problems of quarantine on arrival, which seem quite draconian, but which the Australian government feels are very necessary to protect their natural environment.

The Keukenhof

Although the southern hemisphere is not a serious market for the Dutch bulb industry, The Netherlands still produce around 80% of the world’s flower bulbs. There is great expertise there and this is freely dispensed through that great Dutch marketing vehicle the International Flowerbulb Centre. Based in the delightful town of Hillegom this dispenses bulb information to home gardeners throughout the world, largely through a series of country offices in the major home gardener consumer markets. For over twenty years part of my work was to over-see consumer bulb trials in the UK and provide UK specific advice from the results of these trials to gardeners and the landscape industry. It was thoroughly enjoyable as I got to know the Dutch bulb industry well through my regular visits to The Netherlands, especially the wonderful old city of Haarlem, where I would stay at every opportunity.

At this time of the year the bulb districts in The Netherlands are ablaze with colour, although to the horror of many visitors machines are busy in a number of the fields removing the tulip flower heads. This process increases the strength, size, and quality of the bulbs, because although we think of tulips as perennial plants they are really annual bulbs that keep replacing themselves. They are unlike daffodil bulbs, which steadily grow larger until daughter bulbs are produced, which in due course split away. While the bulb fields, which we should remember are working places, may not always provide the spectacle you expect when visiting at this time of the year, the Keukenhof will certainly delight everyone who loves bulbs. This is the Dutch bulb industry’s showcase garden at Lisse where thousands of bulbs are planted each year to create a great spectacle.

Bonsai in Nanchang, China

My daughter Bernadette, who is currently working in China teaching English has sent me some more great photos of bonsai trees. She lives in Nanchang, Jiangxi province and says that bonsai are all around her. Ancient specimens that those of us who live outside China would give our eye teeth for. They are to be found in public place where they are greatly appreciated, although perhaps she believes, a little taken for granted as there are so many of them. The photo that I include here today is just of a modest nursery collection. How wonderful.

Not that I have always been a fan of bonsai. In my early student days I thought that the art of bonsai was an odd practice and I did not really appreciate its beauty. It took a trip to the Rocky Mountains just outside Denver, Colorado to see the ancient and stunted Bristlecone Pines, to make me really appreciate the nature of the mature bonsai tree, and in fact that the phenomena of bonsai can be a completely natural and very beautiful one. Of course, in China and Japan, and now widely in the western world bonsai is practised as an art.

Bonsai is highly skilled and demands an understanding of the nature and behaviour of plants much beyond that which non-bonsai growing gardeners generally aspire to. Not that this should be a deterrent to newcomers to the bonsai hobby. If trouble is taken to study the subject and to start from basics and work steadily toward creating your specimens, then it can be enormous fun and very rewarding. While gardening skills are necessary and can be acquired, those of patience may not be so easy to come by. So if you are not a patient person, bonsai is unlikely to be a good choice of hobby for you, if you are, then it opens a window upon a fascinating and very creative pastime.

Bonsai is both art and science

Bonsai is the cultivation of mostly woody plants in a controlled way so that they are miniaturised. This is done by growing them with restricted root systems and pruning the tops to create a dwarfed but natural appearance. There are two main kinds of bonsai; Japanese bonsai which are of frost-hardy plants such as pines, elms and maples, and Chinese bonsai which are for the most part half-hardy or tropical plants and usually grown for the most part indoors rather like houseplants. Japanese bonsai are the kind that most home gardeners grow. They spend the spring and summer outdoors under slatted wooden shading, but are given some cool indoor protection for the autumn and winter in areas where there is frost. Protection is required for the root systems, which are in a small volume of compost and can easily freeze. Freezing may also damage the glazed dishes in which they are growing.

Bonsai require well-structured compost, but not one that will promote rapid growth. Soil-less composts are not suitable, but soil-based potting composts are perfectly adequate for most species although there are special bonsai composts available. All bonsai require regular re-potting and root pruning. This is usually done annually in the spring. The idea is to eliminate thong-like roots as far as possible and encourage the development of fibrous root systems. Trimming back leading roots periodically achieves this. The upper part of the plant is also pruned and trained in order to achieve a balance with the root system and will vary from plant to plant.

Bonsai is very much an art and so seek to create a visually pleasing picture. Keep a constant watch for both aphids and red spider mites and treat with a suitable insecticide. Remove all fading foliage and clear up and discard the fallen leaves of any deciduous bonsai species in the autumn. If you are interested in learning more about bonsai, why not join a group of enthusiasts at BonsaiMessenger click here.

Happy Gardening



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