Thursday, August 13, 2009

A little sweetie

When a plant is so reliable and hassle-free that you take it for granted in your garden, it's worthwhile pausing a moment to think what you'd do without it. Well, with my little tubs of sweet alyssum (aka sweet Alice) I know I'd be in for a lot more work growing something else there and I'd enjoy a lot less garden colour. So let me sing its praises for a while.

Lobularia maritima to the botanists, a native of the Mediterranean to the geographers, and a wonderful friend to many gardeners. This is the white form of alyssum in bloom last summer. You need to get up close to see all its dainty complexity, though, as the whole plant grows to just 10-15cm high.

Right now my alyssum tubs are wearing the purple and mauve flowered form, as Pam suggested this would be a better match for the succulent foliage behind them.

And she's right. This current batch of alyssum is nearing the end of its stint here, and is becoming a little leggy and less dense in its colour. But that's not a complaint, as it has been blooming well since April, and five months of continuous colour is a wonderful effort. It would keep on blooming for months more if I let it, but I prefer a more dense layer of colour, so I replace it (with more alyssum) well before it truly needs replacing.

The alyssum's job in the garden is to help hide the relatively ugly little timber and wire framework which keeps all the succulent pots about three inches clear of the soil below. This arrangement gives the succulents perfect drainage and thwarts all attempts by ants to colonise the succulent pots. But it does look a bit ordinary. And so two long terracotta tubs provide the cover-up, and it's the alyssum's job to prettify the whole arrangement. This photo was taken last spring, as I was getting a batch of white alyssum underway.

Last spring I actually over-planted the tubs with seed and I ended up with this rich, frothy foam of white blooms. It looked great for several weeks but the competition finally took its toll on the plants and the flowering suddenly tapered off. Next time round I planted it less thickly and the flower show has gone on for months longer, with each plant happy in its space. But the flowery froth did look nice while it lasted!

As mentioned earlier, I'm growing the purple and mauve 'Cameo Mix' of seeds at the moment, and the subtle mix of flower colours from the one packet of seeds is very appealing. There is also a yummy cream-coloured alyssum available, and it would be my pick, except that the creamy ones don't like our blazing Aussie sunshine and do better in part shade. And with the alyssum tub out there on the pathway, in the blazing heat of Succulent City, the cream-flowered experiment was very pretty for a while, but short-lived and not a success.

The other characteristic of alyssum which is quite charming is that it's weedy. Not weedy in a 'strangle the neighbours' kind of way, more like weedy in the polite 'is this seat taken?' kind of way. All alyssum needs is a crack in the paving to self-seed and thrive. The self-seeders all come up crisp white. This one is at the end of the path, about five metres from the 'mother' tub. As the path slopes slightly down to this spot, the seeds just floated along one rainy day and found a new home.

Snuggled in behind a pot of spinach and a potted wattle, in semi-shade for much of the day, this is another little self-sown blob of sweet Alice.

This really is a wonderful little flower. It does have a sweet scent that's probably best described as honey-like, but it's delicate and probably more noticeable on a hot day in summer than a cool day in winter.

As for growing it, here in Sydney the seed packets say you can sow seed all year round, which is as good as it gets. The plants take only eight weeks to flower from sowing seed, and sowing couldn't be easier. Just scatter the seed on the soil and water in, and this should give the seeds the very light 2mm covering of soil they need. Ideally, plants should be spaced 10cm apart, and if all goes well they'll be about 10-15cm high when full-sized.

The more sunshine you give them the better, generally, but they still will grow and flower quite well in semi-shade. I rarely feed the plants and only water the pots occasionally, if it hasn't rained for a while. They don't mind heat and dryness and really, despite their sweet name, sweet scent and sweet manners, they are as tough as old boots.


prue said...

What lovely close ups of the Alyssum! Mum always had so much of this roaming the garden but I never took the time to look at it closely. Truly lovely, in a simply way.

patientgardener said...

I have never liked Alyssum as I suppose I am reminded of those bedding schemes in the 1970s where they were planted alternating with blue lobelia. It does look good the way you are using it.

GartenGrl at Cool Garden Things said...

I love this charming little plant-who is surprisingly hardy to dry weather and sun...and comes back next year.

Anonymous said...

Flower borders placed around the outer edges of a landscape provide a cleaner and less muddled appearance than numerous, traditional small beds.