This is a plant to enjoy at this time of the year. It is an extremely hardy member of the Bromeliad family, which means that it is closely related to the pineapple. Fasciculus is the Latin word for bundle and a bundle of leaves is a good description of this plant. It has a tight mass of narrow prickly leaves that grow into clumps of rosettes about 9 inches tall. The plant really comes to notice in late autumn and winter when the leaves change to an astonishing vivid scarlet red colour. A turquoise blue flower is produced at the centre of the leaves. Fascicularia bicolor will withstand low temperatures, even light frost provided that it is growing in maximum sunlight and a well-drained soil. A native of Chile it does not like excessive winter wet. It is completely maintenance free and will gradually spread to form a large clump. It is an attractive plant for a rock garden or raised bed. The plant can be propagated by taking offsets around the outside of the plant in spring.
Like other epiphytic members of the bromeliad family, fascicularia can be persuaded to grow on trees. Epiphytic plants live on another plant without obtaining food from it. Place the plant in a small hollow or where the tree forks, tie it on at the start until it takes hold, where it will live on nothing but the occasional shower of rain. Try growing it on the rough hairy trunk of the hardy Trachcycarpus fortuneii (Chusan palm) where it should root into the fibrous matting of the trunk.
Christmas cactus (schlumbergera) normally flowers from November to March. To achieve this it needs at least 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness every night from late summer to autumn. This is because the flower buds are stimulated by shortened day lengths of eight to ten hours in the autumn. Plants kept in a position where domestic lighting is used after dark may not flower. Try moving them to a spare room where artificial lighting is not used. To produce flowers the temperature must be between 10ºC and 18ºC. If flower buds form, but then fall off, the cause is likely to be changing temperatures that are too hot by day and too cold by night or as a result of excessive watering. The Christmas cactus produces flowers in a range of colours from pink to red. So temperature, water and the amount of light are critical for flowering, well worth the effort because you will be rewarded with a beautiful display for Christmas. There is also an Easter cactus (Rhipsalis) which flowers in spring and summer producing mostly white flowers.
Jobs for the week
Clean up the vegetable garden and dig the soil, leaving it in rough heaps. This will expose any insects and weed seeds to the winter elements.
Plant deciduous trees and shrubs during this dormant period, when soil conditions are suitable. Plant trees and shrubs that have colourful barks or berries to provide interest in the garden at this time of the year.
Move Japanese maples growing in pots to a sheltered sunny part of the garden that is sheltered from cold winds and hard frost.
Place a mulch of compost around tender plants like myosotidium, eucomis and dahlias to protect them against frost.
We normally associate hanging baskets and pots with summer but a winter hanging basket or pot can be planted up with spring flowering bulbs, winter pansies, ornamental cabbage and with variegated trailing ivy around the edges to provide colour through winter into summer. Use spring flowering bulbs like crocuses, snowdrops, muscari , dwarf daffodils like ‘Tete-a-Tete and dwarf tulips like ‘Red Riding Hood.
Autumn is a good time to repair worn parts of the lawn. Raise the height of the cutting blades on your mower. Allowing the grass to grow a little higher will help to reduce the chance of frost penetrating the turf and damaging it. Avoid cutting the grass or walking on it during wet or frosty weather.