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If you want to impress your friends or competitors with your horticultural skills then growing watermelons to their full and glorious maturity is definitely a step in the right direction. The wild ancestor of the watermelons originated in the tropical climates of north and west Africa, however as it has been in cultivation since before the ancient Egyptians (it is even mentioned in the Bible's old testament) there have been many hardier varieties that will grow to fruition outside in subtropical and even warm temperate climates. Surprising as it may seem there are even modern varieties that can be grown successfully in the cooler, northern European regions. The most suitable of which is arguably the watermelon cultivar 'Blacktail Mountain'.

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The northern European growing season is still going to be a little short and not quite warm enough for growing any watermelon cultivars outside directly from seed. So to make the most of the season as it is you will need to start off by sowing watermelon seeds indoors so that they are ready to be planted outside as soon as the the threat of late frosts have passed. If you are growing in England sow watermelon seeds in early April to May for transplanting outdoors later on.

Using modular seed trays containing a good quality, free-draining, compost such as John Innes 'Seeds and Cutting, plant watermelon seeds at a depth of  ½ an inch at a rate of one seed per module. Gently water in and the allow the excess water to drain away before place in a heated propagator at a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. Place in a warm, bright position but protect the emerging seedlings from direct sunlight to avoid scorching. Alternatively, seal the tray inside a clear plastic bag and place on a warm, bright windowsill. You can expect the seedlings to emerge between 5-7 days. As soon as the first seedlings appear remove the tray from the propagator or polythene bag to prevent fungal infections caused by the humid conditions.

Once the seedlings have established their roots within the module, carefully pop them out and plant into 3" pots. Maintain a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius and keep the compost barely moist to avoid stem rot.

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Once the threat of late frost have passed your watermelon plants will be well grown and ready for planting outside either under the protection of  frames or cloches outdoors or (depending on the climate and cultivar) directly into the ground. When growing watermelons outside in cooler, northern European climates cover the soil 3-4 weeks before planting with a black plastic mulch as this will help to raise the soil temperature. The plastic mulch will remain in place through the crops lifespan

Gradually acclimatise the seedlings to outdoor conditions 7-10 days before transplanting into warm, well-drained, humus-rich soil. Bear in mind that they will also need a position which receives as much sun as possible and that is also sheltered from strong winds. Prior to planting you can enrich the soil further by digging in plenty of well-rotted farm manure or garden compost. Be aware that watermelons will grow best in soils with a pH of between 6.0 to 6.8. You can test the pH of your soil using a simple shop-bought kit and determine whether the levels are appropriate for watermelon plants. If not, you can adjust the balance accordingly by adding products available for purchase at your local plant garden center.

Plant watermelon seedlings in single rows 3 ft apart leaving a 6 ft spacing between rows. Water well after planting and continue to to do so until your water melons have become fully established.

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Watermelon plants should be allowed to grow flat on the ground and spread out as much as possible without competing with neighbouring plants. Pinch out the growing point after 5 leaves have formed as this will help to encourage lateral shoots to develop. Select four of each plants most vigorous laterals and train these to 6 leaf stage, before pinching out each growing tip. Do not allow the plant to produce any further laterals. Fruiting sub laterals will then form on each stem.

You will need to feed and water watermelon plants regularly, particularly as the flowers start to develop. Apply a liquid soluble fertilizer 10-14 days. During the hottest part of the year shade the plants from strong, direct sunlight as the leaves can become damaged from scorch. This will make it more difficult for the plant to sustain its crop and bring it to maturity.

As the flowers develop, select 4 or 5 female flowers on each plant and hand pollinate them by placing a male flower inside each female bloom. It is easy to identify the female watermelon flowers as they have a swollen part at the base of the bloom.

Do not allow any more flowers develop as this will take energy away from the first lot of fruits and again will make it more difficult for the plant to sustain its existing crop and bring it to maturity.

Watermelons will be ready for harvesting when they produce a hollow sound when tapped.

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Prunus 'amanogawa' is a gorgeous ornamental flowering, cherry tree first introduced in Europe around 1916 by the British plant collector Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson. The cultivar name 'amanogawa' means ‘River of the Sky’ in Japanese. What is referred to as the 'River in the Sky' is known as the 'Milky Way' to western astronomers.

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It is small and columnar in habit with extremely erect branches. It was first mentioned in 1886 in a list of trees which were planted along the Arakawa River near Tokyo. Commonly known in England as the 'Lombardy Cherry' it is noted for it dense, upright clusters of fragrant semi-double, shell-pink blooms which will appear between mid-April and mid-May depending on seasonal temperatures.

The 'amanogawa' cultivar is believed to be Prunus serrulata forma erecta which makes it a member of the Japanese 'Sato Zakura'. This a specific group of extremely ornamental flowering cherries, some of which have been in cultivation for over 1000 years!

Depending on conditions it swill grow between 4-8 meters tall and 2-5 meters wide. However to enhance its erect habit, errant branches can be carefully tied back into the main leaders.

The mid-green, ovate-lanceolate leaves are arranged alternately on the stems and are 5–13 cm long and 2–7 cm wide with a serrate or doubly serrate margin. Like many ornamental cherries Prunus 'amanogawa' will provide a good display of autumn color with the leaves turning yellow, red or crimson before they drop.

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Like edible cherries, Prunus 'amanogawa' will be happy growing in most well-drained, garden soils, including chalk.  Poor soils should have plenty of organic matter dug into the soil before planting.It will require a sunny position and the support of a stake for the first few years to prevent it from being blown over in strong winds. It is vegetatively propagated, and so in it is usually grafted onto Prunus avium roots.

Keep the rooting area free of weeds and grass. In the spring, apply a mulch of well rotted manure or garden compost around the base of the tree, taking care not to mound it up against the stem.

Pruning is unnecessary , but if it becomes unavoidable it is best carried out during late summer so that the cuts have a chance to heal before the onset of winter.

Prunus 'amanogawa' received the Award Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1931.

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Melon harvest

The melon is a tender annual grown for its large, succulent, edible fruits. Originating from sub-tropical Africa and southwest Asia its is a popular fruit with northern European gardeners, but can only be brought to harvest when grown under the protected environment of a greenhouse.

Of course after going to all the effort of growing melons in a protected environment you want to make sure that you harvest at them in peak condition.

When it comes to harvesting melons the fruits should not be cut from the vine until they are completely ripe. Unfortunately melons ripe melons look a lot like unripened melons however there are a number of checks you can make you can make to be absolutely certain.

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1. The best test for ripeness is to press your thumb gently against the end of the fruit furthest from the stalk. If the fruit gives in to pressure then it is ripe. 

2. Also, but not relevant to all cultivars, the skins of ripe fruits of some varieties crack away from the stalks and give off a noticeable aroma. 

3. Melon cultivars with netted rinds have what some growers call a 'ground color' below the netting. When this color changes to a golden hue, the melon is ripe.

4. With many of the smaller melon varieties, the stem will naturally separates from the melon once ripe. This is known as 'slipping'. This is fine if your vines and fruit are growing on the ground but if you are short of space and growing melons as a vine then the fruits will need support. Otherwise if the fruit slips from the vine they will fall and become damaged.

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Prunus 'Kanzan' is one of the most popular of all ornamental flowering cherries, yet despite being one of the most commonly planted of all garden trees its origins are somewhat obscured. We know that it is a member of the Japanese 'Sato Zakura' group of cherries and the general consensus it that it is a cultivated variety of the Prunus serrulata forma purpurascens.

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Also known by the cultivar name 'Sekiyama', it is a strong growing, medium-sized, deciduous tree with characteristic stiffly ascending branches which  become more spreading as the plant matures. Depending upon condition you can expect Prunus 'Kanzan' to grow to a height of between 8-12 meters tall and 6-8 meters wide.

It is noted for both its autumn colour and outstanding floral display. The double flowers are large and showy appearing in mid to late April, usually before the leaf buds break. The blooms open from crimson buds and turn to a purple-pink colour once fully formed. They are between 3-5 cm wide and usually last no more than a couple of weeks.

The young leaves emerge a gorgeous copper-red or reddish-brown and turn to a dark-green as they fully open. The leaves are ovate, with a serrated edge and approximately 12 cm long. Come the autumn they provide an attractive display turning yellow to orange-bronze before leaf-drop.

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Prunus 'Kanzan' will perform best grown in a moist, fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny position. However it is known to tolerate semi-shade. Avoid soils that dry out during the summer or become waterlogged after periods of heavy rain. On exposed or winter sites it will need the support of a sturdy stake until the root system becomes established. Depending on the risk, rabbit or deer guards may need to be put in place at the base of the trunk.

Prunus 'Kanzan' was introduced to European gardens in around 1913 and received its Award of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1921. It went on to receive further awards from the RHS including the First Class Certificate (FCC) in 1937 and the Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in 1984.

Prunus 'Kanzan is sometimes wrongly grown in cultivation under the name of 'Hisakura' however this particular cultivar expresses a taller in habit and comes into bloom approximately one week later.

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Previously known as Arundinaria japonica, Pseudosasa japonica is just one of only twenty one species of bamboo currently within the Pseudosasa genus. It genus name is derived from the Sasa genus as this group of plants are visually similar.

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Pseudosasa japonica is an extremely adaptable and very hardy species of bamboo, and one of the most commonly cultivated in the United Kingdom since its introduction in 1850. Commonly known as the 'Arrow Bamboo' or 'Japanese Arrow Bamboo', Pseudosasa japonica was once the plant of choice for Japanese Samurai who used its hard, stiff canes for their arrows.

Native to to both Japan and South Korea, it forms dense thickets of olive-green, hollow canes of approximately 3-4.5 meters in height, although there are reports of them reaching up to 6 meters high when grown under particularly favorable conditions. Pseudosasa japonica has a habit of arching at the topmost part of its canes. Branches are borne singularly from each of the upper nodes and produce a mass of glossy, dark-green leaves which can be up to 25 cm in length. The underside of each leaf is grey-green in colour with a green marginal stripe. Panicles of green or brownish flower spikelets may appear at any time of year

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Plant container-grown plants in April or May in any ordinary moist, humus-rich and well-drained soil. Pseudosasa japonica will also do well in large containers and coastal gardens. It will perform best in a sunny position sheltered from strong winds but unlike most other bamboo species is surprisingly shade tolerant.  Avoid the root ball drying out completely as this can cause root damage and subsequently the foliage will die back. Always water over its first season and during periods of drought.

Be aware that Pseudosasa japonica has a creeping root-stock which can become invasive in warm, moist or favorable conditions. With this in mind, appropriate measures may need to be put in place to restrain the root system from travelling into areas where it could be considered a pest.

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Ancient olive trees
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When most of us think of olive trees romantic images of the Mediterranean quickly follow. However despite their warm temperate origins they are surprising hardy able to withstand freezing temperatures as far down as -10 degrees Celsius! This means that so long as they are planted in a warm, sunny location you can even grow olive trees in the southern counties of the United Kingdom.

ripening olive fruits on stems
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While growing olives from seed is relatively easy, getting hold of suitable, viable seed is slightly harder. The problem is that the only olives that most of us can get our hands on are the jars of processed fruits found in the supermarkets.

The problem with olives is that they are not edible straight from the tree. They contain oleuropein, a bitter phenolic compounds, which along with several other phenolic compounds render freshly picked olives particularly bitter and palatable. To produce edible olives they must be cured and fermented, a process which will removes or lowers the levels of phenolic compounds. Unfortunately this process will also damage the seeds making them less able to germinate. Therefore seeds collected from a jar of olives are unlikely to bear fruit (excuse the pun).

freshly removed olive stones
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The answer then is to source fresh, fully ripened olive fruits by either collecting them yourself or by purchasing suitable seeds from a specialist supplier.

Fresh olives will need to have the fruit removed to expose the seed (more correctly known as a stone). You will notice that the seed will have a thick hard coat which in the wild would need stratification before planting. This can take a year or so, so a common method of 'encouraging' the seed to germinate is chitting. This is where the seed coat is thinned by either rubbing it on sandpaper to reduce its thickness, and then soaking it for a few hours in warm water. Alternatively you can clip the end of the seed with a knife, removing the end of the seed coat altogether and exposing the live seed inside. There is a sharp end to the seed and a blunt end. Clip away at the blunt end until you expose a tiny hole. Do not damage the seed inside.

young pot grown olive plants
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Using 3 inch pots, fill with a good quality compost such as John Innes 'Seed and Cutting' and then gently water in. Once the excess water has drained away press one seed on the surface of the compost of each pot but do not bury it. The seeds will need to be exposed to light to help encourage germination. Place the pots inside a propagator or seal inside a clear polythene bag to help maintain a high humidity. Move the pots to a warm bright position such a windowsill. However avoid having the pots exposed to direct sunlight as this can dry out the compost. You can expect germination to occur within 3-4 weeks.

Once germinated remove the pots from the bag or propagator and allow the top 1/4 inch of compost to dry out before watering. Keep the seedlings indoors for another month or so then so long that frosts are not expected they can be hardened off for a couple of week before being moved outside. Once the roots have become established in the pots they can be potted on into 2-3 liter pots. From there they can be planted out into the final position. They will be happy in any well-drained soil in a position of full sun.

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How to Plant an Olive Pit
THE PIG FACE FRUIT - Solanum mammosum


How to grow Liquidambar styraciflua -

Commonly known as the 'sweet gum', Liquidambar styraciflua is just one of  six species of hardy, deciduous trees within the genus. Native to warm temperate areas of eastern North America it is noted for its glossy, maple-like leaves and more specifically its attractive autumn colour,

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Liquidambar styraciflua is a small tree growing to approximately 18-25 ft tall with a spread 8-12 ft. It has a slender, pyramidal habit with shiny dark-green, lobed, palmate alternate leaves. Inconspicuous green-yellow flowers are produced in March, and the bark displays deeply fissured corky outgrowth on mature specimens.

During the autumn, and depending on soil conditions, the leaves turn a brilliant orange and scarlet. This will usually be around October and November in northern European climates.

Liquidambar styraciflua will perform best in a slightly acidic, moist, but well-drained loamy soil. However it can tolerate waterlogged conditions from short periods of time. It will prefer a sheltered position in full sun, but will also tolerate partial shade if need be. Unfortunately it will not do well in the shade of a higher tree canopy. Aim to plant specimen trees between November and March but avoid disturbing the root ball. It is advisable to purchase pot grown trees rather than bare-root stock.

This particular species is usually grown as a standard with a straight stem. Once the desired height has been reached, cut of the tip of the leading shoot to encourage branch development and formation of a canopy. The following year, reduce all new growths by one third and remove any side growths from the main stem. Remove the side growths as soon as they appear by rubbing them off with your thumb. Leaving them until they are shoots which require pruning will encourage further side growths to appear at the base of the cut.

The following cultivars have received the Award of Garden Merit (AGM) from the Royal Horticultural Society:

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Lane Roberts' - AGM 1993
Liquidambar styraciflua 'Palo Alto' - AGM 2012
Liquidambar styraciflua 'Penwood' - AGM 2012
Liquidambar styraciflua 'Slender Silhouette' - AGM 2012 
Liquidambar styraciflua 'Worplesdon' - AGM 1993

For related articles click onto the following links:
RHS: Liquidambar
THE AFRICAN TULIP TREE - Spathodea campanulata
THE DEVIL'S HAND TREE - Chiranthodendron pentadactylon


How to grow the Dog Toothed Violet

The dog toothed violet is a common name given to various plant species and cultivars within the Erythronium genus. So called because their oblong, white corms resembles dog's teeth, there are arguably between 20 to 30 species of hardy, spring-flowering perennial plants to choose from.

Erythronium japonicum
Occurring only in the northern hemisphere, they are native to the temperate forests and meadows of Europe, Asia and North America. However, the single most popular example under cultivation is the Erythronium 'Pagoda', a highly prized and ornamental hybrid of Erythronium revolutum and Erythronium tuolumnense.

It is of course the species Erythronium dens-canis which is most associated with the name, 'dens-canis' being the direct translation from Latin for 'dog's tooth'. This particular species is native to central and southern Europe from Portugal to Ukraine and is the only naturally occurring species of Erythronium in its native range.

The species most commonly known as the dog tooth violets are typically described as having narrow to broad, mid-green lanceolate leaves. The leaves are often marbled or blotched with grey or maroon. The nodding flowers have 6 petals which are also lanceolate in design, but also pointed and reflexed like a Turk's-cap lily. The blooms are 2-3 inches across and appear in April and May.

Erythronium americanum
They will grow best in a moist, deep planting but well-drained soil, however avoid areas that are prone to waterlogging. They will also appreciate plenty of rich, organic matter dug in before planting. A north facing slope or a partially shaded position will help to prevent drying out over the summer months and encourage stronger growth and a better flowering display in the spring.

Plant the fleshy corms in the late summer, in groups of a dozen or more. Once planted they are best left undisturbed, however if a move is necessary then the best time of year is after the leaves die back after flowering.

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A cheetah in full stride
Where do Cheetahs live?

Besides being arguably the most lithe and agile of all the big cat species, the cheetah also holds the record for being the worlds fastest land animal. While its phenomenal speed and acceleration has elevated the cheetah to a supercat within its genus, its incredible abilities are not down to a simple lucky accident but an evolutionary advantage resulting from the prey animals it choose to feed from and the environment within which it lives.

Cheetah standing on fallen tree trunk
The cheetah
Before 1900 the Cheetahs ranged from Africa through the Middle East to southern Asia, and as far east as India with a global population of approximately 100,000 individuals. Today only between 9,000 and 12,000 cheetahs are believed to exist in the wild, mostly isolated in small pockets within the African continent and to a lesser extent southwestern Asia. A small population of around 50 are believed to still survive in the Khorasan Province of Iran and there have also been several unconfirmed reports of Asiatic Cheetahs in the Balochistan province of Pakistan.

As you would expect cheetahs prefer to inhabit areas with vast expanses of land where prey is abundant such as semidesert, prairie, and thick brush, The majority of cheetah populations are found in open and partially open savannah, where they rely on tall grasses for camouflage when hunting. Be that as it may, cheetahs can be found in a variety of habitats. In Namibia, for example, they can be found in grasslands, savannahs, areas of dense vegetation, and mountainous terrain.

Sadly, cheetah habitat is in decline and is becoming increasingly under pressure as the wide-open grasslands they favour are converted over to farmland and human settlements. Who knows what the future holds for wild cheetah populations, however without a concerted attempt to preserve their remaining habitat they are destined to become extinct!

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Where do cheetahs live?


Crocus 'Pickwick'

Crocus vernus 'Pickwick' is arguably one of the best of the old Dutch flowering crocus cultivars and produces some of the largest blooms. Perfectly hardy and happy to grow in a wide rage of soil types, it is one of the later flowering cultivars, coming into bloom between March and April depending on the severity of the winter. It has comparatively large, delicate white flowers, veined with deep purple which gives it an overall bluish hue. The grass-like, dark green leaves are strongly contrasted by a white central stripe along the leaf axis.

Growing up to 5 inches tall. Crocus vernus 'Pickwick' is an ideal bulb to naturalise in grass where its large blooms make for a particularly attractive display. Leave the grass uncut for six weeks after flowering to encourage self-seeding. The bulbs will be available for purchase as pre-packed bulbs in the autumn.

Plant them as soon as they are available 3 to 4 inches deep in a sunny position. Crocus vernus 'Pickwick' can tolerate surprisingly poor soils as long as it is well drained. Pot-grown plants are usually available in the spring if you missed out on the opportunity to buy pre-packed bulbs although this will be a more expensive option.

Despite is Dutch association, the original species Crocus vernus is actually native to the mountainous regions of the Pyrenees, along to the Carpathians, in particularly the Alps.

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BBC: Crocus 'Pickwick'


How to grow Fritillaria imperialis from seed
How to grow Fritillaria imperialis from seed

Fritillaria imperialis species and hybrids are amongst some of the most impressive and ornamental of all specimens from the genus Liliaceae. They flower and seed readily and while they are available to purchase as corms or pot-grown plants they can be expensive. Be that as it may, Fritillaria imperialis are relatively simple to propagate from seed so long as it is collected and sown when the seed is ripe.

Fritillaria imperialis seed head
Sow the seed fresh from the pods in July or August, as soon after harvesting as possible. Sow them into 4-5 inch pots containing a good quality compost such as John Innes 'Seed and Cutting'. Then add a further layer (approximately 1/4 inch) of compost, horticultural grade coarse sand or grit and place in a cool greenhouse or cold frame.

Unlike most other Fritillaria species you may well have to wait until the following autumn for Fritillaria imperialis seeds to germinate. Keep the seedlings moist and avoid the tiny bulblets drying out completely.

Overwinter in the cool greenhouse or cold frame, then prick out the largest seedlings into individual pots in the spring. Discard any weak or deformed seedlings. Continue to grow under protection until they reach flowering size, at which point they can be planted into outdoor beds in September to November, 8 inches deep. Be aware that the foliage is a particular favourite of both slugs and snails.

Fritillaria imperialis
It is good practice to plant them on their side so that the hollow crowns do not retain water during periods of heavy, winter rain. Some growers also like to plant them in a pocket of coarse sand to improve drainage around the corm.

Be aware that it can take between 4-6 years before Fritillaria imperialis bulbs will be large enough to flower.

Grow Fritillaria imperialis in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade, preferably in an undisturbed border. Keep an eye out for lily beetle once they are grown out of being under protection.