Published 18/11/2012 | 06:00
Giving your garden an exotic touch is easy, says Marie Staunton
You're probably thinking that it isn't the most appropriate weather to be talking about tropical plants, yet they are making appearances in gardens all over Ireland.
Sometimes people are a little unsure of how to look after them, but, fear not, they just need a bit of extra protection in the winter to keep them safe and sound.
Tree ferns are considered relatively new to garden design in Ireland and they have been much used in recent years. But unless you understand their cultivation, they will never look settled and may not survive in your garden.
Give them a nice moist, humus-rich soil, in a shaded, sheltered position surrounded by other lush-looking native ferns; under- planted with cyclamen they will look the part and settle in nicely.
Dicksonia is probably the main type of tree fern on offer in Ireland. It is hardy in a bad winter, so it will be your best choice for a small garden.
Plant it in spring and, whatever you do, don't let it dry out, especially the growing point.
You can feed it during the growing season with a general fertiliser, but I'm a bit forgetful so a slow-release fertiliser such as Osmocote will do the trick. Spread it around the base of the plant and the nutrients will be released when you water it.
If you are a bit worried about it in the winter, you can wrap it as you would a banana plant. Horticultural fleece is ideal for this job – start at the base and wrap it around all the way up.
When you get to the leaves or fronds, pack a bit of straw in the centre of the crown and wrap a bit around the outside, making sure the fronds are upright, followed by a double layer of the fleece.
That is necessary only if it is in an exposed position. The cost of replacing the fern isn't cheap, so it is worth doing.
I have a bit of a soft spot for a plant called Tibouchina urvilleana. It is tender, but if you have the facility to move it into a glasshouse in the winter then it is a fantastic plant for a sheltered garden.
I first came across it in the Talbot Botanic Gardens. The colour of the flowers is really what sold it to me – they are a delicate purple and they cover the plant during the summer. They're fantastic in a big pot on a nice sunny patio.
Another plant that hails from the tropics and adds a flash of colour to any border is the canna, but it won't suffer a winter here so you will need to lift it after the first frost.
The stems will have turned a little black, so cut them back hard to about 8cm. Shake off any excess soil and clean them off a bit before storing.
Get a deep tray and fill with vermiculite or dry peat, set the cannas in and cover the roots. Keep them moist, but don't over-water, or they will rot.
If you had cannas in pots on the patio, cut back the leaves and put them in the glasshouse over winter.
If you had begonia or dahlia in pots or in the ground, take them up and overwinter them in the garage in trays of sand or vermiculite.
Again, cut back the foliage to around 8cm and let them dry out a bit before storing, then stick a label into the tray saying what they are to make life a bit easier for yourself come spring.