The weekend was better for gardening – at last! Although we still had awful wind Saturday night – nothing to do with my diet – and lots of rain, it was dry enough both days to get some work done in the garden which was a huge relief.
I have made a rule, which is bound to be broken, that I am not going to plant rhododendrons in the garden. I love to see them but they are too stiff and ‘blobby’ for my garden. I refer, of course, to the big, blowsy hybrids but I will bend the rules to include others. In fact I have ordered some small-leaved rhodos and deciduous azaleas, which are now rhododendrons of course, which are waiting to be planted, but more of them later.
As new beds are being dug and some trees planted, I am concentrating on shrubs at the moment and, with lots of space, I am lucky enough be able to fill up the beds as quickly as my wallet allows (ie. slowly!)
In case you get the wrong impression that I do not like rhododendrons, nothing could be further from the truth. I remember vividly when we moved to Surrey when I was young and on Sunday afternoons we would visit some of the great gardens of that county and Sussex; Borde Hill, Nymans, Sheffield Park, Wakehurst, all stuffed to the gunnels with fabulous rhodos, along with other plants such as pieris. Nothing impressed me more than pieris, with their drooping clusters of ivory, bell-shaped flowers, buzzing with bees, and then the spectacular, coral or scarlet new foliage. More recently I have admired them at Mount Congreve in Waterford. Now for the first time in my life I stand a good chance of growing them in my own garden. So I shall!
For a start, I planted three this weekend which, between them, illustrate what I like about them and most of the features they can provide in the garden.
First is ‘Ralto’, which packs virtually everything a pieris can do all in one plant. For a start it is variegated. I am not quite sure that variegated pieris are better than green ones, partly because the leaves are small so they are just a blur from a distance and that variegation tends to come with more subtle spring foliage. But the mature leaves are certainly distinctly edged with great contrast between the dark green and white. And then there are the flowers which, if white, would be rather lost. But ‘Ralto’ is a variegated sport of the rich red-flowered ‘Valley Valentine’ discovered in The Netherlands in 2001 by Ronnie Adrianus Antonius van Opstal. As such, the whole plant is a mass of vibrant colour. My inner ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ tells me it is a bit much and not terribly tasteful but I like it so far and it is bringing colour to my little patch with winter heather and very immature birch trees. It is likely to be compact, with a maximum height of 1m.
In another bed has gone the far less modern ‘Forest Flame’. This is what everyone thinks of as a pieris and it is a seedling and possibly hybrid of P. formosa. This species is not just from Formosa (Taiwan), but from Nepal though to Central China and it was introduced prior to 1881. ‘Forest Flame’ was found at The Sunningdale Nursery, growing as a seedling under a plant of P. japonica and it is thought that the other parent was P. formosa var. forrestii. Whatever its origin, it is spectacular and although grown mainly for the bright new leaves in spring, the flowers are spectacular too. It is a large-ish plant that will reach 2m high and possibly more, in time.
And in another bed is ‘Debutante’ which is a cultivar of P. japonica. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘yakushimanum’ cv. which suggests that it comes from the Japanese Island Yakushima, which is famous for dwarf plants such as Rhododendron yakushimanum which has sired a whole range of hybrids. I can only think that this is relevant because this is a very compact plant, with dense branching and short but much-branched flower clusters. It is supposed to have dark red new foliage but it is primarily grown for its masses of flowers. This is my least favourite of the three so far – but who knows.
Pieris are plants for acid soils, ideally sandy and packed with organic matter, especially composted leaves or, dare I say it, peat. They benefit from regular mulching with organic matter. They dislike soggy soil, though they like and need moisture, and they are best in light shade. Cold, windy, east-facing spots are to be avoided, which is going to be a slight challenge for my young plants which are going to be in full sun for a year or two and, like everything else, will be battered by wind until they all start protecting each other!
The big danger with pieris is late spring frosts which, if they follow a mild spell, will scorch the young, bright leaves, turning them brown. Plants usually recover but it is a bit disheartening.
Pieris do not need pruning but they will tolerate it with ease, if they get too straggly or tall. You can saw them down to stumps, if necessary, in spring, and they will bounce back with renewed vigour. If plants are small and you have time, it is worth deadheading the flowers to prevent seed formation.