The Exotic Year

A month by month guide to how Marco grows his palms and protects them during the colder months.
Marco Tiefel, Austrasse 1, 91126 Schwabach. Translated by William Hoag.
Chamaerops No.24, Autumn Edition 1996

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My first attempt at growing subtropical plants outside was with Yucca gloriosa, planted on the east side of the house in 1988. The biggest one is now 1,5 metres tall and has branched after flowering last year. In 1989 I planted an Araucana auracana (Monkey Puzzle Tree), which has since not suffered any damage. I did lose a small Araucana 40 cm tall, on the south side of the house, in April 1992, as a result of a late frost (-6°C) following a warm March and beginning of April. A similar frost, late in the year (-6°C, in March 1993) was nearly fatal for a potted Musa basjoo which was brou2ht out during a nenod of warm weather (+20°C) . Five out of seven solitary stems froze, and no shoots have emerged since. According to literature, the stem of Musa basjoo is hardy to -9°C. The last two stems never completely recovered and one of those perished last year. lt was a fortunate thing that I had two small ones in reserve, with which I was able to rebuild a good clump.

The first two palms, Trachycarpus fortunei, when bought in 1985 had trunks 30 cm in height, overall height 1 meter. Planted in containers, they produced only 1-2 leaves each year, trunk growth could hardly be registered. In 1990 I planted out a Trachycarpus on the southwest side of the house, which now produces 4-5 leaves each year. The second Trachy palm was brought out into the open but as a result of the cold 92/93 winter with temperatures down to -16°C and evident leaf damage, I brought it inside in the autumn to spend the winter in the basement, container-bound. The first Trachy suffered no leaf damage but the new growth had difficulties and the first leaves had an unusual, crippled appearance; but the point produced five leaves in the course of the year. lt thrived through the next two winters and in June 1995 the first flowering occurred and 11 leaves were produced; the trunk now is 70 cm in height, overall height of 2 meters.

In March 1995 I planted Yucca aloifolia 'variegata', which is already 2 meters tall and difficult to bring in and out of the house due to its prickly nature. Before Christmas 1995 we had three cold nights down to -13.5°C, but the Y. aloifolia did not suffer.

The subtropical gardening year begins here around the 8th week of the year; the first plants to come out of the basement are T. fortunei, which were raised from south Tirolean seeds; then Chamaerops humilis, Butia capitata, Cordyline australis. The biggest specimen spends the winter in the basement on its side, as the stairwell and its 3,3 meters is not tall enough.

The next plants to come out are Choisya ternata, Fatsia japonica and variegata, Camelia japonica, Callistemon citrinus, Phormium tenax purpurea and variegata, and Nerium Oleander. The Neriums begin blossoming in mid-July and the flowering goes on until rainy September. In March the Canna indicas are set out to shoot in an unheated glassed-in balcony, more than a hundred plants in over 20 varieties. Cannas are the best medium-height complementary plants for a tropical framework in the garden. Small wild species like Canna limbata, 30 cm tall with small, yellow-red flowers and comparatively big seed pods begins to blossom in mid-June, the big-flowered types in mid-July. The wild form of Canna indica and its orange tubular flowers is not quite as spectacular, but reaches a height of 1,7 meters, even on the north side of the house. Big-flowered Cannas look quite nice under Musa basjoo. It's very interesting and rewarding to raise Cannas from self-collected seed, as the seedlings often show variation in size of leaf and plant as well as flower colour, and many bloom in the first year. I dig up the Cannas in the autumn with a generous amount of earth so damage to the rhizomes is minimal. They need some moisture throughout the winter. Earlier winters with no added moisture resulted in 30% loss.

During the month of April nearly all plants are brought outside. The new flowering star of the last two years was lochooma cyaneum which, after a leafless winter, is brought outside with leaves and flowers, and they persist all through the summer and up until the plant comes inside again in November. Ficus carica has obviously enjoyed the hot summers of the last few years, and the plants produce edible fruit every year. Cold summers result in hollow figs and very little pulp. The plants have been outside for three years now and show no signs of damage. Over the pergola, the hardy Campsis radicans is a background attraction which flowers profusely in July and August. Passers-by walking by the east side of the front garden stop and admire the big Yucca gloriosa and the Araucaria. Later in the year they are accompanied by Musa basjoo, 2 branched Yucca elephantipes 2,8 meters tall and two big Cordyline australis.

In the second small front garden stand three Hibiscus syracus planted out in 1984, the prettiest sight is when one of them flowers in four different colours. Each year it has more; when I see a new variety I graft it onto my plants in March, out of ten grafting attempts two to three are successful.

Even the warmest summer comes to an end, and three basement rooms fill up in November and December with subtropical plants, stacked up and bundled. The plants left outside are protected with a thick mulch of leaves. When the night frosts dip below -10°C I spray water onto the Yuccas and Araucarias so that when the temperature falls at night the water freezes instantly and the cold does not directly affect the leaves. This does not work with Trachycarpus, it is enveloped in a rush-mat when temperatures stay low (3-4 days under -12°C). This protective mat makes a difference of four degrees celcius.

In the course of the years to come, I plan to try out Musa basjoo, Sabal minor, Nannorrhops ritchinana if it becomes available, Trachycarpus fortunei (is said to withstand -18°C in Hupei, China), to be planted out in the garden. I shall report to you on results, when I will have acquired new perceptions and knowledge on the hardiness of these plants.

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