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Cornucopia - Nerines - doing it by the book

Nerines - doing it by the book
Patricia Connor

My first five bulbs of Nerine bowdenii were bought from Sue Lea of Simms Farm House, Mortimer, when she was selling plants from her garden at one of the monthly openings at Esther Merton’s lovely garden at the Old Rectory, Burghfield. At the time they didn’t look much, being out of growth, but ready for planting. That was about twenty years ago, and they were planted according to the best advice gleaned from four books by different authors, Graham Stuart Thomas, Beth Chatto, Robin Lane Fox, and Margery Fish. All told me to give them a well drained soil in full sun with the backing of a wall facing south, southwest.

When they eventually settled down and flowered, I was so entranced by their beauty that more and more were planted until there were seven clumps in different places, all in full sun, but not always in front of a wall. Over many years they slowly increased and never failed to flower well. Then new neighbours arrived and, having admired the nerines which were fully visible from their side of the joint boundary, they proceeded to plant an evergreen shrub immediately in front of the largest group. This was in the front garden where the boundary is marked by a line of stones which are never visible amongst all the plant growth and which help to give both owners the illusion of having a deeper border than if there was a visible fence.

After three years the evergreen had grown large enough to leave the nerines in complete shade all year round and open to weather from the northeast. At about the same time two different groups of bulbs eventually became shaded for much of the day, one by a much loved Rosa glauca and, the second group by a beautiful mature Cornus kousa var. chinensis. According to all the books, there were no other suitable situations they could be moved to, so I resigned myself to watching them decline.

Now, nine years later the bulbs in full shade are the best of all seven groups and remain longest in leaf and flower. The other two groups in part shade are still excellent and also last longer than those in full sun, which being open to the south/south west, get the full blast of autumnal wind and rain. This was unexpected, going as it does against all the books, and I was puzzled as to how to explain it when even the most recent advice from the RHS is to plant in full sun?

Then I discovered that when N. bowdenii was first introduced to this country it was described as growing on south facing rocky outcrops and this led to the advice to grow it in front of a south facing wall. But this description was of bulbs growing in their natural home in the southern hemisphere in South Africa, where a plant growing in a crevice on a south facing rock would be in full shade all day. The northern hemisphere equivalent would be a sheltered shady place, not full sun. Perhaps this literal translation explains why going by the book when growing N. bowdenii may not always be the only way.

Or, maybe it’s a bit more complicated than that. My soil is light, hungry, well drained and in the south of England, so that even in an exposed position facing north N. bowdenii would survive. But if the garden soil were heavy clay, even in the sheltered south, would the bulbs survive or rot from their real enemy, excessive winter wet? If you garden on clay and have grown this nerine successfully outside during cold, wet winters, it would be interesting to learn of your experience, especially if you grow them in full shade.

First published in the Berkshire Group Newsletter, Winter 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 28.
© Copyright for this article: Patricia Connor

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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