Sunday 18 March 2018

Let the transformation begin

Gentian speedwell is long-lived, easy to grow but surprisingly rare in the garden
Gentian speedwell is long-lived, easy to grow but surprisingly rare in the garden

Gerry Daly

The pale blue flowers of the gentian speedwell are remarkable in early summer. They look so delicate, light in colour and, though pale, are very striking. The gentian speedwell isn't a rare flower, but should be seen more in gardens than it is.

Also called blue border speedwell, Veronica gentianoides makes low-growing rosettes of leaves, closely clustered together a few centimetres over the soil surface. The dark green leaves are no more than about finger length and rounded.

But these little rosettes are tenacious. They are long-lived, lasting for well over a decade, and usually only die out when they become squeezed and shaded out by much larger plants. Once given a reasonable space, they need practically no effort.

In late May or early June, this little plant undergoes a transformation. Easily ignored when it has only its low rosettes of leaves, as soon as it flowers it is almost like a different plant. Suddenly, the rosettes produce several flowering stems and the whole plant is dominated by the flowering spikes.

These are about 45cm tall, several times the height of the rosettes and bolt upright in contrast to the leaves. The flowers are very pretty, pale blue, almost white, opening from darker buds that offer a degree of contrast. Carried on the flower spikes are dozens of little cup-shaped flowers with four rounded petals and a central eye of yellow-green.

The flowers are each carried on a slender, individual flower stem that holds them slightly away from the main flower spike. This gives the spikes an airy appearance that makes them frothy, light and summery.

While the pale blue is mostly grown, there are white forms occasionally seen, and a darker blue selection, 'Robusta', which is even more rare. This colour form is nearer the name 'gentianoides' which means gentian-like. Gentians are mostly bright blue but there are pale blue kinds too.

After flowering, the flower stems eventually wither and the plant reverts to being a low mat of leafy rosettes. The flower spikes can be trimmed away when they are finished if they are considered a bit messy.

Gentian speedwell is easy to grow in any reasonably good soil. The soil should be open, well-drained but hold moisture and have some organic material dug in. Overly rich soil can make the flower stems a bit soft and likely to fall over, although this does not generally happen.

Foxes are ruining my lawn

Q A family of foxes - a mother and three cubs - come into my garden most evenings. They eat slugs and snails but also dig holes in the lawn and flower beds and disturb bulbs in pots. What can I do to get them to leave the garden alone, before the garden is ruined? C Hinchy, Dublin

A Find where they get in and seal the opening with wire mesh. If a barrier isn't possible, eventually they will stop coming when they have eaten the available food. Bone meal used as fertiliser is a magnet for foxes, but they could just be digging for earthworms or cockchafer larvae. The cockchafer larvae will soon pupate and depart, and worms go deeper in the soil in summer. Put some gravel or stone on the tops of the pots.

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