A bounty for the Phuket balcony

PHUKET: A few months ago Larry Flynn asked for suggestions in regard to potted plants for a balcony. The balcony in question was about one and a half meters wide and six meters long – the kind of setting I’m sure many other apartment dwellers here have to work with.

Moreover, the balcony was overlooked by other buildings and did not get much sunlight. Since the greenery was intended to act as a screen, it was clearly a good idea to go for plants with specific qualities; ones that could tolerate shade, were capable of rapid growth and could cope with the tight restrictions of the containers. Quite a task.

I suggested that the pots should be glazed to minimize water loss. As for the plants themselves, our reader wanted a palm or palms, but was open to ideas for other occupants of his balcony. Our reader had chosen a Macarthur palm, but in my opinion, the best one for this environment is a rhapis or lady palm. True, it is relatively slow-growing with a maximum height of six or eight feet, but it will tolerate shade and has lovely dark fronds which can form a barrier.

Larry has come back to me with pictures of his new garden – the plants arrived on October 12 – and a series of questions. He went to a nursery in Chalong, and after some discussion, they delivered a selection of plants.

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One is a heliconia which has yellow foliage and looks a bit undernourished. I’m sorry to say this, but I would be reluctant to choose heliconia for pots. True, they are one of the fastest expanding groups of ornamental plants with spectacular hybrids, and, more importantly, they can perform in partly shaded conditions; but they have substantial root systems and grow from underground rhizomes, so are not ideal for containers.

Heliconia need rich, permanently moist soil and plenty of room to maneuver. Plants produce only one bloom per stalk, so if this one has already flowered, then it needs to be cut back. The costus plant requires similar conditions, but fares better in a pot.

Another balcony shrub, not in bloom, appears to be a bougainvillea. These are always a good bet because they are so tough and uncomplaining and come in a wide range of colors. They will tolerate containment and grow rapidly once established.

But Larry’s sister’s advice to remember to water his charges every morning and evening, while perfect for the heliconia and costus, will not suit the bougainvillea. If it is in a damp, shady environment, it will produce masses of foliage but little color. Let it dry out and only water when the soil is dry to the touch.

Among Larry’s gallery of photographs is a wrightia religiosa, another sensible choice and always popular with Thais. It will grow up to two meters tall and produce frequent clusters of drooping, fragrant white flowers. Most important, it will accept both light shade and a confined existence. My only reservation is that it does not have a dense habit, but it will thicken up with pruning.

The most popular screening plants in Phuket are two foliage shrubs which, if allowed, will rapidly grow into small trees – witness the rows of cristinas and sais outside the Honda showrooms and flanking Muang Chao Fa Road, the new cut-through road from Chao Fa West to Kathu.

Cristinas have light-green leaves which are reddish when young and grow very quickly; sais are a darker green and almost as vigorous. They are much used in topiary. Larry appears to have one or the other of these on his balcony, where it should prove a useful addition. Moderate watering, please. Don’t worry about the holes in the leaves. Probably grasshopper nibbles.

Finally there are plants in hanging baskets. One is Spanish moss, the other, with alternate round leaves, is a dischidia. With small reservoirs for their roots, they will need daily spraying or watering.
Over to you, sir.

If you have a question or a garden that you would like featured, email me at: drpaccampbell@gmail.com. Further information about this gardening series and Patrick’s other work can be accessed at: patrickaccampbell.wordpress.com

— Patrick Campbell

Thai Life
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