Playing gardens

Sunday, 22 January 2012

My new orange bromeliad

Last Wednesday I had the luxury of having a whole day to spend in the garden, with no other commitments hanging over my head. It was wonderful to be really able to lose myself in the garden, think about things that could be improved, potter around to my heart's content, and to simply enjoy being outside on a perfect summer's day, with a soft, cool breeze fanning me as I worked. I tackled one garden area that has needed attention for quite some time: a shaded, weedy garden bed under some big trees at the bottom of my yard. It is a rather tropical-looking border, featuring big-leaved foliage plants and flowers of red and orange. I decided this bed was the perfect spot for one of the bromeliads I bought at the fundraising stall last Saturday, featuring a globular, orange inflorescence. I planted it right near a glowing orange cane-stemmed Begonia.

Newly divided Neoregelia carolinae with red Pentas

I stood back to admire my handiwork, then I was seized with the idea that I could divide up the nearby congested clump of red-centred Neoregelia carolinae that were being swamped by the advances of the low-growing foliage plant Philodendron 'Xanadu'. This Philodendron has deeply divided leathery leaves and steadily forms an attractive wide clump that needs absolutely no attention at all during the year and looks great all the time. I love the red-centred bromeliad because the colour is so intense and long lasting. It doesn't have a significant flower but the centre of its vase looks like a cute miniature water garden when it does bloom, which it is at the moment. I decided to divide them all up and plant some large patches of it next to some red flowers in the bed: red shrubby Pentas, which performs well in shaded areas as long as it gets some light; red cane-stemmed Begonia, which thrive in shade; and the lush-leaved Odontonema tubaeforme (often colloquially known as red justicia), which will come into bloom in February.

The work of dividing and replanting bromeliads is so easy and so rewarding: the effect of one's efforts is immediately apparent, reminding me of when my sisters and I used to 'play gardens' when we were little. We'd fill an old tin pie dish with soil, cover it with moss, perhaps add a small mirror for a pond, then stick flower stems all around the edge. We earnestly believed that our 'garden' would stay looking like this. In the case of the bromeliads, the effect is permanent. They won't turn a hair after being split up and replanted, and they literally only need to be propped up in the soil.

My new bromeliad, similar to Aechmea fasciata

At the garden stall, I has also acquired two flowering specimens of a bromeliad that looks very similar to Aechmea fasciata, which have gorgeous silvery leaves and shock-headed, pale pink flowers in summer and autumn. These found a home beneath a dark pink Justicia carnea growing in a shaded area; to me the flowers have a kinship of form and I was well pleased with my little composition. Spurred on by my success, I proceeded to divide up several other clumps of bromeliads and find new places in the garden for them: a dark-spotted one was placed in a border with silver and purple leaves, and some red and purple-flowered ones found a new home in a shaded, root-filled area with other hot-coloured blooms.

Unusual bromeliad flower in the garden of Anne Prescott in Sydney

I know I have written a previous blog about the value of bromeliads in dry, shady garden spots, but I believe this more than ever these days. They really need next to no care and they look good every single day of the year. They come in an array of sizes from the diminutive to the majestic. The range of leaf patterns and colours is truly amazing, as is the diversity of flowers on many of them, lending themselves to colour echoes with any number of other plants. Many of them will grow in the forks of trees if tied on, with a bit of compost tucked in to get them going. One 'pup' will steadily multiply into a clump before too long. They are ideal for young gardeners starting out who just want to fill some empty spaces: I know that my first plot started that way with big clumps of what I call Billbergia vittata and Billbergia pyramidalis from my parents' garden.

Display of bromeliads at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

At the height of my cottage gardening years, I confess I did spurn them as being 'horribly common' but I have realised the error of my ways now and embrace them as a wonderful plant for Sydney gardens. There is currently a fantastic display of them under a huge tree in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, in the Middle Gardens. The Garden also has an excellent collection of these plants in a number of its other shaded areas, and it is well worth looking out for them. Specimens can sometimes be purchased in the Friends of the Botanic Garden Nursery, located near the Maiden Theatre. This wonderful nursery is open Monday to Friday from 11.30 am to 2 pm and on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month from 9 am to 1 pm.