Gardening: Exotic, dramatic and tall – that’s the Echium

Looking up at a stunning Echium Blue Steeple.
Looking up at a stunning Echium Blue Steeple.
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You may not have heard of them but if you’re a fan the exotic, dramatic and downright tall, you can’t beat the Echium family.

Our native variety, E. vulgare, (viper’s bugloss), is loved by bees but I’m a massive fan of its bigger brothers and sisters, mostly natives of the Canary Islands.

One massive specimen that should flower this spring - cat hiding underneath for scale!

One massive specimen that should flower this spring - cat hiding underneath for scale!

Don’t let this put you off – I’ve grown them from seed (easy) for the past few years and they have survived the North East winter well, as long as they’re kept in free-draining soil.

They flower in their second or third year and as prolific self-seeders (especially E. pininana), you’ll never be without these whoppers. For a small garden, they don’t take up much ground space – it’s all in the flower spike, which grows like a rocket in late spring.

Here are the best with flower spike heights:

Echium pininana (3-4. metres): There are three colours, Pink Fountain, Blue Steeple and Snow Tower - blue, pink and white. Drought tolerant and although they droop in a frost, they soon perk up as temperatures rise. They will tolerate a couple of nights at -4C.

Time to pot up lilies.

Time to pot up lilies.

Echium wildpretii (Tower of Jewels) (1-1.25 metres): Native to Mount Teide in Tenerife, they grow at altitude and can survive -7C in a dry environment. Stunning rose-pink spikes of flowers, bright blue pollen, arising from rosettes of radiating, furry, narrow grey leaves.

Echium boissieri (1.8-2.4 metres): In the first year, it forms a wooly, prostrate, silver rosette of leaves.

The next year, strong thick stems carrying bunches of creamy-apricot flowers with red stamens and sky blue pollen, are produced. The largest frost-hardy Echium, down to approximately -6C.

I sow mine from mid-February to mid-March in an 18-20ºC heated propagator with a grow lamp to give a good 18 hours of daylight in seed compost with a covering of Perlite (they need light to germinate).

Once they’ve germinated, there’s no stopping them.

Pot on into gritty compost into pots until hardened off after the last frost and ready to go outdoors into sheltered beds or containers.

JOBS TO DO THIS WEEKEND

Plant lily bulbs in pots to transplant into the border.

Sow dwarf French beans under glass in a large pot for an early crop in June.

Take cuttings from dahlias planted last month to raise new plants.

Sow hardy annual flowers where they are to bloom if your soil is workable, such as Calendula, Nasturtium and Nigella. You can also sow them in modules if you have space in an unheated greenhouse to give them a faster start.

Divide and/or plant bulbs-in-the-green, such as snowdrops (Galanthus) and winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), if not done last month.

Check whether containers need watering. Sheltered pots can miss out on any rainfall. Pots and tubs benefit from topping up with fresh John Innes compost.

Check autumn-sown sweet peas and apply mouse and slug controls if necessary.

Feed trees, shrubs and hedges with a balanced fertiliser (such as Growmore or blood, fish and bone), sprinkling it over the root area before hoeing into the soil surface.

Delay pruning spring-flowering shrubs until after they have flowered. Don’t prune slightly tender evergreen shrubs (such as Choisya, until April), but do tackle hardy types. Remove reverted green shoots on variegated evergreens.

Overgrown climbers can be renovated. Deciduous varieties will be at bud burst now, so you can tell which growth is dead and alive – suitable for Lonicera (honeysuckle), Hedera (ivy) and rambling roses.

Cacti should be kept dormant until spring is definitely under way, then increase watering and feed to bring it into active growth.

On mild days, open vents and doors of greenhouses to reduce humidity and help prevent disease.

Apply a nitrogen feed to plums, cherries, cooking apples, pears and blackcurrants.

Prune blueberries and apply sulphur chips to beds of blueberries, lingonberries and cranberries if needed.

Sow under cloches: carrots, beetroot, broad beans, salad onions, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spinach, leeks, lettuce, rocket, coriander, mixed salad or stir fry leaves, radish, turnip, peas and Swiss chard.

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For more on these topics, plus cook what you grow, traditional recipes, North East information, environmental news and more, log on to www.mandycanudigit.com (now smartphone friendly), www.sunderlandecho.com/gardening, follow me on Twitter @MandyCanUDigIt or you can like me on Facebook at Mandycanudigit