The Bunya Pine - Araucaria bidwillii
Commonly known as the Bunya Pine, Araucaria bidwillii is a large evergreen pine native to south-east Queensland Australia. It was named in honour of botanist John Carne Bidwill, who discovered it for western science 1842. 

Despite both its looks and common name it is not a true pine botanically speaking, but instead a member of the the same genus as the monkey puzzle tree - Araucaria araucana. This is why it can sometimes be known the 'false monkey puzzle tree'.

The Bunya Pine is the last surviving species of the never-heard-of Section Bunya of the genus Araucaria. This section was once diverse and widespread during the Mesozoic period with some of these ancient species having cone morphology similar to today's modern Araucaria bidwillii, which itself has been found amongst Jurassic Fossils found in South America and Europe.

As interesting as the history of the Bunya pine is, if you are able to purchase one of these living relics, how do you grow Araucaria bidwillii - the Bunya Pine. An important start is to know the native environmental conditions that it thrives in which are rich volcanic soils in moist valleys at low elevations near the coast. But make sure you have enough space to cultivate it as specimens are know to grow up to 40 metres in height

This species is hardy to about -5°c, with occasional lows to -8°c, but it can to be killed in severe winters. This species is wind pollinated and once mature you can expect the Bunya pine to bloom in June, and any seeds produced to ripen from September to October. 

It will be quite happy growing in most well-drained soil types so long as the ground remains moist throughout the year, but not waterlogged. When young it will require additional watering during periods of drought.

It isn't really considered hardy in any areas of the United Kingdom except for the most mild (including coastal) regions of the south and south-west, but even then it can be at risk.

HOW TO GROW THE NORFOLK ISLAND PINE - Araucaria heterophylla

The Norfolk Island pine - Araucaria heterophylla

The Norfolk Island pine - Araucaria heterophylla is a distinctive, tall-growing and elegant conifer native to the Norfolk Island, a small Pacific Ocean island situated between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. Beside the monkey puzzle tree - Araucaria araucana, the Norfolk Island pine is the only other species from this family that is commonly grown in Europe, either as a houseplant in northern Europe or as an ornamental garden plant around the Mediterranean basin. Despite its common name it is not a true pine, although it's evergreen needles do give it a pine-like appearance.

Juvenile plants are pyramidal in shape, formed by a whorl of widely-spaced, horizontal branches, that ascend to its crown. Dark green needles surround the branches, changing their shape slightly in the upper branches as the tree matures - hence the species name 'Heterophylla' meaning variable leaves. The bark is grey and rough, and when the tree reaches maturity, its shape can become less symmetrical and more untidy. Mature indigenous specimens can reach up to 200 ft in height, but you are looking at only 100 ft elsewhere.

Araucaria heterophylla foliage
Its island origins make it an ideal coastal plant. It requires a position of full sun and has excellent tolerance to salt and wind. It will grow well in deep sand, so long as it is reliably watered as a sapling. Surprisingly the Norfolk pine does not fare so well away from coastal conditions and such it is not advisable to plant it too far inland.

The Norfolk Island pine will not survive in areas that are prone to extended periods of cold weather and are easily damaged by hard frosts. Be that as it may there are records of Araucaria heterophylla growing in the milder regions of Great Britain and northern Island where the coast line is warmed by the Gulf stream. Most notably they are found outside in the subtropical gardens of Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly and on Valentia Island on the southwest coast of Ireland - their most northerly location.

The Norfolk Island pine as a houseplant

When grown as a houseplant, the Norfolk Island pine is far less vigorous reaching a height of between 3-6ft tall. Pot on every other year in March into a good quality compost such as John Innes 'No.2', but go no larger than a 10 inch container. Provide bright, well-ventilated conditions and a minimum winter temperature of no less than 5 degrees Celsius.

Water freely over the spring and early summer, but keep the roots just moist over the winter. Provide a liquid soluble fertiliser every two weeks from may until August. The Norfolk Island pine can be hardened off to live outside from June to October.

Main image credit - By thinboyfatter - originally posted to Flickr as Norfolk Island, CC BY 2.0,


The monkey puzzle tree - Araucaria araucana

The monkey puzzle tree - Araucaria araucana is just 1 of 18 species within the Araucaria genus, however it is by far the hardiest for growing outside in northern European gardens. It is an evergreen, coniferous tree native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina, and able to reach an impressive 60-70 ft in height. So that being said it is only suitable for large gardens or parks, despite often seen planted in the front gardens of suburbia!

The monkey puzzle tree is broadly columnar in shape, but with a broadly pyramidal or conical top while in its juvenile stage. As it matures this top will becomes increasingly domed. There is some variation in habit from trees that produce narrow columns with no low branches, to trees which do have branches that sweep low to the ground. The dark green leaves are closely overlapping and ridged with sharp edges and chips.

Araucaria araucana leaf
To begin with growth is very slow attaining no more than about 4 ft in 10 years. After this growth will speed up to about 12 inches a year.

Araucaria araucana is dioecious, meaning that male and female plants exists rather one plant which produces both male and female parts. Male trees produce terminal clusters of two to six catkins which surprisingly look like small bananas. These catkins will shed their pollen in June before turning dark brown in colour. The female trees produce globular cones, 4-7 inches long and 3-5 inches wide on the upper sides of some of the top branches. It will take 2 1/2 years for these to mature, at which point they will be covered with golden spikes and containing up to 200 seeds.

The monkey puzzle tree will happily grow in most soils and conditions, but you should avoid planting in damp, poorly drained soils. If you have light soils then they are best planted in October or early November. It is better to wait until March if you have heavier soils. While older plants may look far more attractive than younger specimens, they do not transplant as well so it is usually best to purchase seedlings of no more than 12 inches.

The common name 'monkey puzzle' derives from its early cultivation in England in the mid 19th century, a time when it was still considered a rarity. The owner of a young Araucaria araucana specimen at Pencarrow garden near Bodmin in Cornwall was showing it to a group of friends, when one of them declared that '...It would puzzle a monkey to climb that....' As there was no common name for Araucaria araucana at this time the 'monkey puzzler', then 'monkey puzzle' name stuck.

Main image credit - By Monica SP54 - Own work, Public Domain,

THE VERMILLION FLYCATCHER - Pyrocephalus rubinus

The Vermilion Flycatcher - Pyrocephalus rubinus

The Vermilion Flycatcher - Pyrocephalus rubinus, is a small passerine bird from the Tyrannidae family. The species grows to about 18 cm)in length, and is strongly dimorphic. The common name of 'vermilion' only relates to the male flycatcher which is blessed with brilliant undersides, breast, neck and cap. The back is black and there is a black eye-band running running to and joining the back of the nape of the neck. the bill, legs are also black.

The Vermilion Flycatcher - Pyrocephalus rubinus
The female Vermilion Flycatcher is much less colourful having yellow underparts, an off-white breast and neck, and a brown head and neck. The bill neck and feet in both sexes are black. When young, the immature male Vermilion Flycatcher  displays the same colours as the female.

The Vermilion Flycatcher feeds on insects such as flies, grasshoppers and beetles mainly caught on the wing, but it is also known to feed on the ground. such as flies,

They prefer open areas, and their range includes Mexico, south-western United States, scattered portions of Central America, north-western and central South America, and central Argentina. They are also found in the Galapagos Islands where they are classed as Pyrocephalus rubinus nanus although they are sometimes listed as the separate species Pyrocephalus nanus. Here they are also commonly known as Darwin's Flycatcher or the Galapagos Flycatcher.

The bird breeds mainly during the warm season, which is December to may on the coast, but may nest all year round in the highlands. The female will lay 2–3 whitish eggs which are incubated by the female only for around two weeks. The young are usually ready to leave the nest 15 days after hatching. The Vermilion Flycatcher is known to breed frequently during heavy El Niño years.

In text image credit - Charles & Clint file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.0 Generic license.
Main image credit - Leautaud file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

THE MONKEY LADDER - Entada gigas

Image credit - Paul Hermann Wilhelm Taubert (1862-1897)

The Monkey Vine -  Entada gigas, also commonly known as the monkey-ladder, Cœur de la Mer or Sea Heart, is a species of flowering liana from the pea family, Fabaceae. A liana is a long-stemmed, woody vine which is rooted in the soil at ground level and uses trees, as well as other means of vertical support, to allow it to grow up through the canopy to get access to well-lit areas of the forest.

The Monkey Vine -  Entada gigas,
It is notable for having the largest seed pods of any member of the pea family, measuring and impressive 12 cm across and up to 2 metres in length. Inside each pod can be between ten and fifteen seeds, each of which has a diameter of 6 cm and a thickness of 2 cm. Each seed contains a hollow cavity, which gives them buoyancy. After being washed into rivers by heavy rain, the seeds eventually reach the ocean where they drift long distances on ocean currents. The success of its ability to travel the seas has given it an enormous global range. It is native to Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America, and Africa.

Growing towards the light, the monkey ladder can grow extremely and like some other vigorous climbers has the ability to entangle trees. In Gabon, one individual has been discovered with a stem diameter of over 30 cm and straddling 13 tree canopies to reach gaps covering a distance of several hundred metres.

Seed buoyancy and vitality lasts at least two years.

Paul Hermann Wilhelm Taubert image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

In text image credit - CC BY-SA 3.0,



How much light does a Ficus lyrata need?

As a houseplant, Ficus lyrata has been on sale in our garden centres for a least forty years now yet they have recently been the subject of a huge surge in interest from house plant growers. Considered by many as the 'King of Houseplants', Ficus lyrata - commonly known s the fiddle-leafed fig, is undoubtedly an impressive, architectural specimen. While it indeed has exotic characteristics, does it then mean that it requires exotic environmental conditions? If so, how much light does a Ficus lyrata need?

Ficus lyrata is in fact a large tree native to western Africa, where it grows in lowland tropical rainforests. This would dictate that it will flourish best in conditions of high, direct light levels, high rainfall and high temperatures. However if you provided such favourable conditions then you would end up with a fully grown tree of up to 40 feet in height! This is certainly not the dimensions that would keep as a suitable houseplant.

How much light does a Ficus lyrata need?
That being said, Ficus lyrata is an incredibly robust plant and as such will tolerate the lower light levels and temperatures of a northern European home. As you would expect, if the plant is not growing at its optimum capacity, it will not require the same amount of water and light as you would expect it too in its native habitat. Of course there are minimums of environmental conditions below which your Ficus lyrata will deteriorate and lighting is one of them.

When sitting your Ficus lyrata you need to consider its requirements and as such it is recommended positioning in as bright a room as possible but preferably out of direct sun. Be aware that the top growth of your Ficus lyrata will bend towards the sun so remember to periodically turn your plant unless you are happy for it to have a bend as it reached towards the light.

If you want to increase the growth rate of your Ficus lyrata then you can harden off your specimen over a couple of week to outside conditions until it can be placed in full sun for the summer. Just be aware that if you try to move it out into direct sun the leaves will easily scorch, also you will nee to increase your watering in order to maintain a constantly moist root environment, but of course avoid water logging as this can easily damage the root hairs.

This plant has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.

Main image image credit - Ficus lyrata in Parque Botánico de Maspalomas (Gran Canaria) Date 1 April 2014, 14:31:35 Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

In text image credit - By Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0,

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Is Ficus lyrata an indoor plant?

Like me, you have probably seen a lot of articles written about the fiddle-leafed fig - Ficus lyrata turning up on your news feed. You may also have noticed that, after white orchids, it is the houseplant of choice for the interior designers of multi-million pound properties. Lauded by some as the 'King of Houseplants', Ficus lyrata has seemingly captured the imagination of many houseplants lovers and its size is often used as a gauge the successfulness of ones horticultural skills. But let's take a step back here, We all know what they look like, so lets be honest, Ficus lyrata looks more like a tree than you're regular, dainty ornamental houseplant and this then begs the following question - is Ficus lyrata an indoor houseplant?

Well let me stop you right there all plants  currently considered 'house plants' (I'm kind of talking about the true species here rather than the modern, manufactured and selected varieties we generally see now) were all quite happily living outside in their natural environments long before proto-man (or proto-woman) even thought of the concept of a home. While it's true that there are plenty of cave-dwelling species that could argue the title I am going to ignore them for now for the purposes of this article.

Is Ficus lyrata an indoor plant?
One of the questions here is this, what is a houseplant? Put simply this is a species which can not only tolerate home conditions but will also thrive without growing its surroundings. For example, plants which tolerate the lower light levels of being indoors, can cope with irregular waterings and does not become misshapen or etiolated. This is why many of our favourite houseplants are shade-tolerant ground cover plants from tropical and subtropical climates.

Back to the question of is Ficus lyrata an indoor plant. Of course not, it's an absolutely enormous tree from western Africa which can reach an overall height of up to between 30 and 40 feet tall in its native habitat! So why is it so popular as a houseplant? This is because, by comparison to western African environmental conditions, our northern European homes are cold and dark and these limiting environmental factors act as an inhibitor to its natural growth rate. This means that you get all of the impact of a truly magnificent tree, but with at a growth rate of an acceptable two or three leaves a year - maybe more if you can provided more favourable conditions.

So there you have it. Is Ficus lyrata an indoor plant? Yes and No, so well done me for providing a clear answer.

Main image image credit - Ficus lyrata in Parque Botánico de Maspalomas (Gran Canaria) Date 1 April 2014, 14:31:35 Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

In text image credit - By Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0,

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The lizard eye vine

Not only is the lizard eye vine an absolute gem of the plant kingdom, it is a supreme a master of disguise. However, despite its startling look, it was discovered only three years ago by a research team cataloging new species in French Guiana.

Headed by the renowned Dutch botanist Doctor John Apryll, the team heralded their new find as akin to a discovering a new primate.

Commonly known as the lizard eye vine or 'honey vine', it was named after the head of the team, hence the botanical name of Foolilis apriliana.

The 'eye' is in fact a swollen flowering bud of no more than 10mm in diameter and is a defense to deter browsing animals from eating it. The blooms remains in tight bud for most of its lifecycle, only opening to reveal the 'eye' at night. When opened, the flower produces copious amounts of nectar. It is surprisingly tasty and eaten raw and is a delicacy of the local Wayampi tribe. As you can see in the man images it is insect pollinated

Unfortunately, the lizard eye vine's flowering period is very short lived as they begin to die back as soon as they are pollinated. Bud initiation to pollination can be as short as 7-10 days, and when the lizard eye vine is not in bud it is sadly a rather nondescript plant. This explains why it had remained undiscovered by the scientific community for so long.

The plant itself has a climbing habit, reaching an overall height of approximately 4 metres. the ovate leaves are a mid-green, finely ribbed with extending tendrils with which its secures itself at height.

Of course none of this true, I made the whole thing up. The image is a photoshopped fake, but looks so real that I had to include it in my Facebook page.

Of course you knew it was a fake as soon as you read the botanical name Foolsilis apriliana. In other words - APRIL FOOLS!

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Can you root Jade plant cuttings in water?

The Jade plant - Crassula ovata, often also commonly known as the money tree or plant is a popular, easy to grow houseplant, and is found almost literally everywhere! However, over time, they can become quite large as a houseplant (the larger the better in my opinion as they often have the spirit of the bonsai about them), or they can become misshapen, affecting their ornamental value. At this point you may wish to bring out the secateurs and of course the question arises 'can I use this material for cuttings?' Which you can. So how do you achieve this? Can you root Jade plant cuttings in water, and is the water even necessary?

Can you root Jade plant cuttings in water?
You will be relieved to know that growing jade plants from cuttings is super-easy. In fact it is a simple as snapping off a stem section and leaving it on a windowsill. It will genuinely root by itself - no help required. See main image for confirmation. However, this will not work for all plants and for best practice one should always use a sharp sterilized blade to remove propagation material.

But the question is can you root Jade plant cuttings in water? This is another level of unnecessary complication but people are creatures of habit and some will literally try propagating everything in water. You will be please to know that yes you can and it will root perfectly well. However, once the root buds form it is best to pot them on straight away as longer roots are easily damaged when it comes to being potted on. Just refresh the water every few days and don't use cold water straight from the tap, use tepid water to avoid environmental shock and to maintain the plants metabolism in this area.

When ready to pot on use a good quality, seed and cutting compost, although you can pot directly on into a cactus and succulent compost. If you do not have any specialist compost available, you can make a 50:50 mix of multi-purpose compost/lime-free grit mix.

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Why do poinsettias drop their leaves?

You can get a great sense of the Christmas spirit when you walk into a garden center and get slapped in the face by a sea of poinsettia displays. Of course they looks absolutely stunning but once, after checking over the first twenty or so identical plants, you have made your purchase why is it that your perfect purchase collapses once it arrives at home? Just why do poinsettias drop their leaves?

The initial answer is simple, poinsettias generally drop their leaves when exposed to environmental stress. This is usually caused by the root-ball being too wet, the plant being exposed to cold or relatively hot conditions. But there is anther reason, the colourful bracts will drop once the true flowers in the center have become spent.

Why do poinsettias drop their leaves?
Root ball too wet

This is one of the most common reasons why poinsettias drop their leaves and the botanical name gives a clue to this - Euphorbia pulcherrima. Those with an interest in cacti and succulents will recognise the species name Euphorbia, perhaps more commonly known as spurge. many of which have evolved to survive in the deserts of Southern Africa and Madagascar. So as you would expect Poinsettias react poorly to being waterlogged and prefer to dry out between waterings.

Just one more thing with regards to watering. Don't use cold water straight from the tap as this can chill the roots. Always use tepid water to prevent shock.

Too hot or too cold

This is a simple one, do not place your Poinsettia by a radiator or open fire, Equally take care that your specimen does not become chilled at home or prior to coming home. It won't be the first time that a plants has been delivered on a trolley to a garden centre on a frosty morning and is left outside while the house plant manager takes their tea break. The same can be said for leaving plants in your car for a few hours.


While the colorful bracts look like flower petals they are in fact modified leaves. They of course do the same job, as in attracting pollinating insects, however the true flowers are the cluster of small blooms found in the centre of each bract. Once the blooms have finished there is no longer any need for the colourful bracts and so they are naturally dropped. So when choosing your poinsettia always try to choose plants where the blooms are as tight as possible.

Two more things

Now that you have more of an idea as to what can trigger leave drop these next two things are probably self evident.

1. As which many houseplants, do not place your poinsettias in a cold draught.

2. Do not purchase your plants from a street vendor or from a display that is kept outside such as one you would expect from a wintery petrol garage forecourt. That would be crazy!

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THE HAPPY ALIEN PLANT - Calceolaria uniflora

The Happy Alien plant - Calceolaria uniflora

The Happy Alien plant - Calceolaria uniflora is a bizarre looking species of evergreen, perennial plant from Tierra del Fuego in the southern part of South America. Also known as Darwin's Slipper Flower ('slipper flower' is a generic common name for all species within the Calceolaria genus), Calceolaria uniflora was first discovered by Charles Darwin during his expedition around South America - the Voyage of the Beagle, 1831–1836. In fact this species was originally named Calceolaria darwinii but this has now been superseded.

The Happy Alien plant - Calceolaria uniflora

Situated close to the south pole, Calceolaria uniflora is a cold-climate mountain species found in very exposed, well-drained sites. Its normal habitats are coastal and riverine sands and rocks, clearings in scrubland, peaty alpine fescue moorland, feldmark, clifftops and steppe.

Like other true alpine plants, Calceolaria uniflora have a shallow root system and grow tight to the ground reaching no more than 4-5 inches tall. The pouch-like blooms are about 2 inches long, and appear throughout the summer suspended from tall slender stems that rise from a rosette of small, tongue-shaped leaves.

The flowers are orange-yellow with varying amounts of deep garnet-red to bright chestnut freckling or shading in the throat and on the outside of the vertical lower lip. Each bloom has a white band across an open "mouth", with burgundy markings above and below it.  The white section is offered out as though it is on a tray and attracts a local species of bird. The bird eats this section of the flower and in doing so collects pollen on its head. As soon as the bird eat from another flower it too becomes pollinated.

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The shrubby milkwort - Polygala chamaebuxus var. grandiflora

The shrubby milkwort - Polygala chamaebuxus is an extremely tough ornamental alpine plant native to the mountains of west-central Europe. So hardy is it that given the right environment it will tolerate cold spells down to -20 degrees Celsius!

Image credit - Seboth, J., Graf, F. (1839)
Commonly found on the slopes of the French Alps Polygala chamaebuxus produces fragrant, creamy white flowers tipped with yellow flowers from April until June. However the cultivar of 'Angustifolia' and natural variety grandiflora are purple with yellow tips.

The leaves are dark-green,glossy and no more than an inch long but are almost hidden from view when the plant is in full flower.

Polygala chamaebuxus has been grown in cultivation since 1658 and was first illustrated by Carolus Clusius (1526 – 1609) a Flemish doctor and pioneering botanist, and perhaps the most influential of all 16th-century scientific horticulturists.

Polygala chamaebuxus forms low-lying, evergreen clumps up to 6 inches high and 20 inches in spread. It prefers a very free-draining soil, slightly acidic soil so avoid planting on chalk unless you have added a good quality compost such as John Innes 'Soil-based Ericaceous'.

Polygala chamaebuxus image credit - Aelwyn
While they will always do best in a alpine bed or specialist container they will also grow quite happily in a borders or containers so long as they are sited in full sun avoiding waterlogged conditions.

They will however tolerate partial shade but this will result in a reduction of flowers produced. Do not plant under deciduous trees as they will not cope well with leaf litter over the autumn and winter.

Polygala chamaebuxus var grandiflora was previously known as Polygala chamaebuxus var purpurea and also as Polygala chamaebuxus var. rhodoptera.

Polygala chamaebuxus can be propagated from softwood cuttings taken in early on in the growing season.

Alwyn file è licenziato in base ai termini della licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione-Condividi allo stesso modo 3.0 Unported

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How to grow Japanese cobra lily - Arisaema ringens

The Japanese cobra lily is perhaps the most spectacular of all species within the Arisaema genus. Native to Japan, Korea, and China, Arisaema ringens is a tuberous woodland perennial that is best known for its cobra-like flower. However despite being a rarity in almost all garden centres it is surprisingly easy to grow the Japanese cobra lily - Arisaema ringens, assuming you can find one!

The flowers appear in the spring, one bloom per tuber, arising from the centre of two green trifoliate leaves. Growing to between 4 and - 6 inches tall, each flower is a showy, green and purple striped spathe with a hood. Inside each hood is a yellow to white flower spike known as a spadix. The plant itself will only grow 12 -18 inches in height and spread.

As exotic as this plant undeniably looks, given the right conditions the Japanese cobra lily is in fact completely hardy.

Japanese cobra lilies prefer part shade to full shade and are best grown in moist humus-rich, but well-drained soils. If you are growing from tubers then they will need to be planted about 3-4 inches deep.

The drainage is very important as the root system can become damaged if kept waterlogged for extended periods. Do not allow the soil to dry out. To prevent problems later on  avoid growing in heavy clay soils.

Plants go dormant in summer after flowering, except hermaphroditic flowering plants will produce a cluster of red berries in mid to late summer which become visible as the spathe withers.

The Japanese cobra lily can be grown from seed, but may take 3-5 years before they produce their amazing flower.

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How to grow giant sunflowers

Come the summer and you can guarantee than most towns and villages will be holding some kind of a giant sunflower completion. Of course most people will stick a seed in the ground and hope for the best but if you consider yourself to be more of a 'competitive' parent (you know who you are) then is is a lot you can do to encourage those extra inch that will help annihilate the competition.

These are my golden rules to winning first prizes in any giant sunflower competition.

1. Choose the right site!

As hinted in the name, sunflowers need plenty of sun. It may seem obvious but the more sunlight you can have shining on your sunflower the more energy it can produce in its massive leaves and therefore power its growth to a gargantuan winning size.

2. Prepare the ground.

While light levels are extremely important, sunflowers will also need plenty of nutrients. Dig in a good bag-full of well-rotted farm manure a couple of months before planting, then mix in a handful or controlled release fertilizer, such as osmocote, when planting. Once growing strongly, alternate a weekly water-soluble feed with week one being seaweed extract and week two one with a high nitrogen feed such as miracle-grow.

3. Purchase the right seed.

If you want giant sunflowers then purchase the appropriate seeds. Most garden retailers will supply giant varieties such as 'Mongolian Giant' and 'Russian Giant', but purchasing competition standard seeds such as the 'Sunzilla' cultivars can give you the extra edge you need.

4. Start them early.

Sow sunflower seeds under protection in late February in deep long-tom pots. In warmer mediterranean regions you can get away with sowing outside at the end of March. Whatever your climate, do not plant sunflowers outside until the the threat of late frosts have passed.

5. Plant multiple seeds and then progressively thin out the weakest.

Sow five seeds for every one plant you wish to take to maturity. Once they get to 3-4 inches, thin out the weakest two. One they reach 2 ft tall thin out the weakest two again. No pain, no gain!

6. Water

Get the watering wrong and you can end up with early flowering, stunted losers. Water thoroughly once a week, and once the weather heats up this can be increased to twice a week or even  more if necessary.

7. Staking

Plant your giant sunflowers 2ft apart and put the stakes in at the time of planting. If you wait until you need stakes then you will damage the root system when the stakes are put in place. Avoid using stakes at your peril as you run the risk of your prized giant sunflowers being knocked over in strong winds.

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Watercress is a highly underrated salad crop, rarely seen in the supermarkets, and yet is considered by many to be a super-food! In ancient Greece watercress was so venerated that the physician and father of modern medicine, Hippocrates (460 – c. 370 BC) is said to have deliberately located his first hospital beside a stream so that he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress to help treat his patients!

With the aid of modern technology we know that watercress is packed fill of nutrients and vitamins A and C, and contains significant amounts of iron, calcium, iodine, and folic acid. While eating fresh watercress is undoubtedly good for you just be aware that if you collect watercress that has been growing in the presence of manure it can be infected with parasites such as the liver fluke - nasty!

Of course to ensure a healthy crop of watercress you can grow your own from seed. In fact while commercially grow watercress is usually grown submerged in a constant supply for fresh, water it can also be grown in any ordinary garden soil so long as it is given plenty of water. You can even grow it in a container stood in a saucer of water.

Direct sow watercress seeds in mid-spring, which is usually around April in Europe when the soil has warmed up. First create some very shallow drills with a 3 inch spacing between each drill. Sow the seed sparingly and then give a light covering of soil. Water regularly, but it cost is an issue then consider creating your drills at the bottom of a small trench. It won't need to be any deeper than 4 inches for this purpose.

Once the emerged seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them out to 4 inches apart. Water regularly throughout the season, there is no need to worry about the rots becoming waterlogged, just make sure that the soil does not dry out over the growing season otherwise you will lose your crop.

Keep the drills weed free as this will competed with the watercress and reduce your crop.

When growing watercress seeds in containers use a good quality compost such as John Innes 'No 2' and start off with pots or tubs approximately 12 inches in diameter. Plant the seeds just below the surface of the compost at a rate of 3-4 seeds per pot. Stand the container in a deep saucer which can hold approximately 2-3 inches of water, and place outside in a shady position. Keep the water levels constantly topped up.

You can begin to harvest watercress once the plants have become well developed. All you need to do is trim off the tops of the shoots with a pair of sharp, sterilized scissors. Don't cut back too far as you will need to allow the stems to produce new side-shoots for your next harvest.

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How long does it take to grow a lemon tree from seed?

Lemons trees are wonderful plants, evoking mediterranean holidays, limoncello cocktails and fragrant jasmine-scented blooms. As exotic as they are to our northern European eyes they are surprisingly robust and while all the commercial cultivars are vegetatively propagated lemons are easily grown by seed. In countries subject to colder environments, growing lemon trees from seed is still something you can do at home and your subsequent plants will be perfectly happy growing outside in a suitably sized pot, just make sure you bring the whole thing under under protection during the winter period. So it's one thing putting a seed in some compost, buy how long does it take to grow a lemon tree from seed?

Lemon seeds

Well there is no fixed time for this as it will depend on the temperature of the root environment. Plus before you even start you will want to make sure you have planted viable seed. You can purchase you seed online or from a trusted supplier or simply purchase some lemons and collect the seed yourself. Sponge off any dried pulp and then place the seeds in a bowl of water, discarding any which float. Either plant any that are left or if you only want a couple, choose the largest seeds. You will be pleased to know that lemons seeds generally have a high rate of germination.

Using a good quality compost such as John Innes 'Seed and Cutting', perhaps mixed in with a little ericaceous compost, plant you seed no more than 1 cm below the compost surface and water in. Keep the soil permanently moist but do not allow it to become waterlogged.

So to answer the question, if you simply place your pots on the kitchen windowsill gemination can be painfully slow. We are talking 6 weeks to a couple of months possibly more but be aware if the kitchd isn't particularly warm the seeds may just rot away in the pots. If you can maintain a temperature in the low 20 degree Celsius then you can expect germination to occur within 3-4 weeks and if you can maintain day temperatures arounf 26-28 degrees Celsius then it can be as fast as 2-3 weeks, however once germinated drop temperatures back down to the low 20's.  

But how do you maintain such warm temperatures in the compost? Well you have technology to help you with that, All you need is a heated propagator or if you want to produce an lemon orchards worth of plants build a propagation bench with soil heating cables.

Good luck with growing your lemon seeds, they really are surprisingly easy to do.

One more thing, do not make the mistake of placing your seeds in the airing cupboard, temperatures there are not controllable and can reach temperatures high enough to heat sterilize your seeds 

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How to grow Abelia schumannii
First named in 1911 as Abelia longituba by German botanist Carl Otto Robert Peter Paul Graebner (1871–1933), but then later recognised as a species by fellow German horticulturist and taxonomist Alfred Rehder,(1863-1949), Abelia schumannii has had its fair share of name changes. Commonly known as the Schumann abelia, the species name honours the German botanist Karl Moritz Schumann (1851-1904) - curator of the Botanisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem from 1880 until 894. However despite the common name remaining, the species name as been reclassified once again and is now correctly accepted as Abelia parvifolia which is known to be a variable species. Hence the confusion.

It was discovered for western science by Ernest Wilson (also known as ‘Chinese’ Wilson) during his 1910 expedition to western and central China, and then subsequently sent to the Arnold Arboretum in the USA. Sadly this gorgeous species is rarely seen for sale and so if you do manage to precure one how do you grow Abelia schumannii in the garden setting?

It is a small, deciduous ornamental shrub which under favourable conditions can be expected to reach a height of approximately 2 metres. It has slender, arching branches, and the new shoots are notable for being purple and covered with downy hairs.

The ovate leaves are green, rounded at the tip and up to about 3 cm long by 1 cm wide. The scented, funnel-shaped blooms are rose-pink with persistent orange-red calyces, and appear in abundance from August to September. Each flower is up to approximately 1.5 cm long.

Abelia schumannii will perform best in a sunny position. It will be happy in most, moist but well-drained garden soils. It is not considered fully hardy in temperate climates so provide a sheltered position, preferably with the protection of a south or west facing wall in any regions that experience freezing conditions.

Abelia schumannii received the Award of Merit (AM) in 1926 from the Royal Horticultural Society and an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in 1984.

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How to grow Abelia graebneriana

Abelia graebneriana is a rarely seen hardy, deciduous species from within the genus, and discovered in 1910* for western science by the well known plant hunter  Ernest Wilson (1876 – 1930). Native to Central China, its species name is in honour of Carl Otto Robert Peter Paul Graebner (1871-1933), a German German botanist and curator (1904) at the botanical gardens, Berlin. However before we get into how to grow Abelia graebneriana there is a little bit more history to cover.

The plant was named and first described by horticulturist and fellow German  Alfred Rehder,(1863-1949), the details of which were published in the rather long-winded:

'Plantae Wilsonianae' :an enumeration of the woody plants collected in western China for the Arnold arboretum of Harvard university during the years 1907, 1908, and 1910.

However the first edition didn't see the light of day until 1913. That being said,  Abelia graebneriana was renamed in 2012 to Abelia engleriana which is now the accepted name for this plant.

Abelia graebneriana is a vigorous, medium sized shrub which (under favourable conditions) can be expected to grow to approximately 3-4 metres tall. The young shoots are reddish, however as the taper-pointed leaves fully form, they become an attractive glossy green.

The bell-shaped flowers appear in June and July and are apricot in colour with a patterned, yellow- orange throat.

Abelia graebneriana will thrive in most garden soils so long as they are well-drained soil. It will not perform well in shade and so always position in full full sun

*Despite this being the accepted history of discovery, there is a pressed specimen of Abelia graebneriana at the Smithsonian Institution's  Department of Botany. This was collected from Hupeh, China in 1885 by Irish plantsman Augustine Henry (1857–1930).

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Hardy bananas growing in England

Who doesn't like bananas? Well of course some people don't. But if you do, have you ever wondered it it were possible to plant your own banana tree and then over time produce your very own fresh, organic fruits? Well if you live in the United Kingdom and not the tropics then no it wouldn't be possible, at least not left outside to its own devices. However with the benefit of modern technology you can grow a cavendish edible banana tree in the UK. You just need money, space and facilities. 

To be fair, the first pineapple (another tropical fruit) was grown at Dorney Court, Dorney in Buckinghamshire, England in the early 18th century so growing banana tree in the UK in the 20th century should be child's play. In fact a huge stove was designed and created at the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1723 to specifically heat the soil in which the pineapple plants were being grown. 

Cavendish bananas
Furthermore, a shipment of bananas from Mauritius (courtesy of the chaplain of Alton Towers, then the seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury) arrived in England in around 1834 at the estate of William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. His head gardener and friend, Sir Joseph Paxton, cultivated them in the greenhouses of Chatsworth House. The plants were named as Musa cavendishii, after the Duke, and Paxton won a medal at the 1835 Royal Horticultural Society show. So we do in fact have a bit of a history in the UK of growing bananas.

So not to put too fine a point on it, all you need to grow a banana tree in the UK is a tall heated greenhouse with additional soil heating cables and supplemental solar lighting. Job done, questioned answered.

However if fancy controlled environments is not your thing then is there another option? Well yes there is. There are a number of banana varieties which can be grown outside in the UK without the need of a greenhouse. In the southern lands of England there are only two which I have managed to keep outside, albeit with winter protection. The first is the hardiest of the banana species - Musa basjoo, the second is the gorgeous Musa ensete 'Maurelii' - the Abyssinian Banana. For your information, Musa ensete 'Maurelii' will not produce any fruits in the UK and if id did they would not be edible fruits. It is the roots, which once processed are edible on Musa ensete. But it will indeed grow year after year. You just need to remove its leaves before winter and cover it with appropriate frost protection.

So we are back to one contender. Will Musa basjoo produce edible fruit in the UK? Again the answer is sadly no but only insofar as it produces edible fruits - which it does not. However it has been known to produce fruits in the UK on established specimens around the south coast when global warming provides us with a long and warm enough summer.

So for the question can you grow a banana tree in the UK? The answer is yes.

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