Gardening: Survival of the fittest

By Leigh Bramwell

In some places in Chile's Atacama Desert there has been no rain for 400 years. I am so packing my bag. (It doesn't rain in the South Pole either because the air is too cold to hold moisture, but I won't be going there.)

The reason it doesn't rain in such places, I believe, is because there is only so much rain to go around, and a good 90 per cent of it is being delivered to our place.

Consequently, our lawns are a foot high, the house - usually white - is now mostly green, it is impossible to walk on anything that is not paved without sinking a good three inches into the mud, and it looks as if nobody has lived here for several years.

On the upside, I have culled every piece of spare clothing from my wardrobe and given it to the SPCA shop, the house is cleaner than a hospital, I have made several varieties of citrus jam and preserves, and on any given day can be found in the kitchen slaving over an incredibly complicated recipe for something like Thai kaffir spiced broccoli soup.

At the time of writing, it has rained every day for the past 17, and for the past seven weekends. I am grumpy. The partner is grumpy. The dog is grumpy.

The only thing that isn't grumpy is the Bubble Magnolia on the front terrace which, despite a particularly brutal pruning six months ago, is flowering like there's no tomorrow. Every time I open the door I am assailed by its tropical scent, which makes me want simultaneously to go on holiday to the Pacific and bake a coconut tangelo cake.

Magnolias make winter almost worthwhile. We have the aforementioned Bubble, a Mixed Up Mix and a Touch of Pink, and they're all in full bloom. It's curious that I rarely get to admire them at closer range than from the doorway because it's usually too wet to get outside.

The spectacular efforts of Bubble this year have, however, put us in a quandary. The brutal pruning has left the tree far from beautiful and, even though it looks well on the way to recover itself with foliage, we don't want to be whacking half its branches off every year. And since magnolias are real stay-at-homes, resenting any disturbance to their environment, shifting it is not an option.

A decision will ultimately be made to take it out altogether and replant new Bubble Magnolias elsewhere, but it's a bit like having to have a sick dog put to sleep - it's never the right time and you so wish you could keep it for just a bit longer.

The lesson is learned, though - my magnolia book says one of the major keys to success when planting a new one is to allow for its ultimate size.

If you can't bear the idea of an area 6m in circumference with a tiny new magnolia in the centre, then use temporary shrubs or plantings around it.

Select a site protected from wind and in good sun. A little light shade is acceptable but magnolias in full shade can become scraggly and flower sparsely. Provide well-drained, good garden loam that is rich in organic matter, and plant when dormant to reduce the risk of sulking. Don't bury them - they're surface feeders. And I had to laugh at the paragraph that advised making sure new magnolias have good irrigation for their first growing season.

There was more bitter laughter at the bit that said to mulch each spring to conserve moisture, followed by falling about holding my sides at the suggestion of adding water-conserving crystals to the hole.

The magnolia's predilection for water is no doubt why all of those in the Far North are at their most spectacular right now. They're everywhere - evergreen, deciduous, white, pink, red, purple, cream. It is absolutely impossible not to rush down to the nursery to get one (or another one) in the nano-seconds between thunderstorms.

If you're not a magnolia expert you may become completely confused by the nomenclature, but it doesn't really matter. Just check whether it's evergreen or deciduous, and how tall and wide it will grow, and then pick something with a flower and scent that appeals.

Be prepared to nurse them a bit through the summer - they like to be cool as well as wet. Me, I prefer hot and dry. I think I'll head off to the northern Sahara for a while - it does rain there but the water evaporates before it hits the ground.


- Hamilton News

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