Garden Diary - November 2001

What an odd month, weather-wise, this has been. There were a few intermittent chilly nights with temperatures down in the 20s Fahrenheit, sufficient to turn Musa basjoo, my hardy bananna from southern Japan all stiff and sere, rattling in each passing breeze. As Basjoo wrote in his famous haiku

A banana plant in the autumn gale -
I listen to the dripping rain
Into a basin at night.

Then we'd have mild sunny days where the upward-climbing mercury would reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Confused, the banana would bravely send forth another leaf. Understand that this summer, the fourth since I planted it in a sheltered site near my study, the banana had burgeoned as never before - 6-foot long leaves and three sturdy stalks that pushed new leaves up against the roof overhang. At times the view out my study window seemed positively tropical. And I assure you that I did not mulch with Osmocote. Paul, my husband, feels that this lush growth was due to my habit of interring all the small furry fertilizer packets provided by the cats around the banana's base. But eventually November put the banana to rest for the winter. Chris, my "head gardener", cut the three thick stems down to about knee height with a hand saw. Next up-ended plastic garbage cans with their bottom cut out were set over the trunks, then filled with oak leaves as protective mulch. A main trunk with a sizeable pup fits into one can while the other can has only a single stem. Once the temperatures are reliably chilly - that means nights consistently at freezing or lower - I'll put a top on the cans.

At the same time as plants and gardens are put to bed for winter I'm planning and planting for next year. Seed sowing is as much a part of my autumn/winter rituals as planting bulbs. Last spring I joined The Cyclamen Society. They have a pleasant, informative journal but my hidden agenda was access to their seed exchange, available to members only. This year's exchange contained 99 items, including tender species like Cyclamen africanum to some rare hybrids such as C. x hildebrandii, a cross between C. africanum and C. hederifolium and everything between. My focus is on hardy cyclamen that I can plant in the garden. And the seed list had them all, from mixed flower colors of Cyclamen coum and C. hederifolium, separate magenta, pink, or white forms to named cultivars such as C. coum 'Tilebarn Elizibeth' and C. hederifolium 'Nettleton Silver'. For a modest $15 I got more than two dozen packets of CC. coum, hederifolium and purpurascens, each with a goodly amount of fresh seed.

That is one of the key items necessary to raise cyclamen from seed. Old seed germinates irregular and slowly, over a period of several months. Fresh seed is much more prompt, but even so there are a couple of things I do to help things along. The first is to soak seed overnight or for 24 hours in water with a drop or two of dish detergent. Cyclamen seed has a waxy coating, and removing it in this way allows seed to absorb moisture and sprout more readily.

Seed is generally covered to its own depth - dust-fine begonia seed on the surface and exposed to light, fat peas and beans an inch or so in the ground. Previously I would cover cyclamen seed with a scattering of potting mix, then top the pots with a layer of aquarium-size gravel or chick grit. Now, and I learned this from the society's Journal, in addition I'll keep the seed pots covered and in the dark, which apparently also hastens germination. I'll keep checking the pots for the appearance of new little leaves since pots must be brought into light as soon as they emerge. Over the winter I'll grow my cyclamen seedlings under fluorescent grow-lights, using a 1:1 ratio of cool white:warm white bulbs.

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