Phuket gardening: Help with growing pains

PHUKET: Garden centers in Phuket like the curate’s egg; they are good in parts. Some suffer from neglect, others are overpriced, especially those nearest to the fashionable west coast resorts. The centers that supply plants to hotels are likely to offer the best value.

This gardener recently acquired a calliandra, the botanical name meaning “beautiful stamens” and the common name being powder-puff.

It is grown for its dense heads of pink, white or scarlet stamens which appear on short stalks along the upper sides of the branches.

They are silky soft to the touch, but in appearance they look like colorful teazles.

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Anyway, I found a large plant about six-feet tall and in full flower in a corner of one of those aforementioned neglected nurseries. It must have been there for years, since it was imprisoned in a small plastic pot that was far too small for its burgeoning roots. And here came my mistake.

Chatting to the owner, I paid no attention to how it was removed from its resting place, and only later was the discovery made that the main tap root, the root responsible for supplying the bulk of the plant’s moisture and nutrients, had been carelessly cut off just below the base of the pot. In this case the tap root was probably at least a foot long.

Once home, the calliandra was re-potted in a container six times the size of the original one. However, the damage had been done, and within days most of the shrub had died back.

After drastic pruning, and the application of fertilizer, it has now started to recover.

The moral of this tale? Watch the way in which established plants are dug up, even when they are already in a container.

Of course most gaffes in the tropical garden are born of ignorance, but gardeners tend to be quick learners.

For example, we quickly learn to differentiate between shrubs that need full sun and those that require partial or even full shade. Garden centers are helpful here, since all their shade-loving plants are literally kept under wraps, cosseted beneath green netting, or some other kind of roofing. And here you will find all those plants you tried to cultivate as house plants back home. Even outdoors, they do far better here on account of the much higher humidity and constant high temperatures.

They are after all, mostly understorey plants in the rainforest, used to lots of moist air, a layer of natural leaf mulch and relatively little direct sunlight. So don’t put them in your new garden unless you already have areas of shade, and soil with a high organic content.

In this category you would have to include soft-stemmed plants such as dieffenbachia, aglaonema, spathiphylum, calathea, caladium, the whole family of bromeliads, and the even larger family of philodendrons. These are all excellent foliage plants that will give an exotic look to your garden, but they need the right conditions.

One other plant to add to the list of hardy sun-lovers is the calliandra or powder puff. Since it comes from equatorial America, it will handle the high temperatures here, and will even put up with dry spells.

Its flowers start as cones of tightly packed buds, but soon turn into the soft, globular heads that are such a distinctive feature of this plant. And the red cultivar is particularly appealing.

Oh, and by the way, readers, do let me know about your favorite garden center.

Tip of the week – dealing with dracaenas

DRACAENAS are plants that produce colorful, typically red or – in the case of reflexa – variegated leaves.

They are grown primarily for their foliage in tropical gardens. But some varieties do have a tendency to lose their lower leaves and to bolt; that is to say, the bare stems get longer and longer, and the crown of leaves at the top looks out of proportion with the rest of the plant.

This is particularly liable to happen when the dracaena is deprived of sufficient sunlight. The drastic solution is to cut the stem six inches from its base and leave it to sprout again.

The remaining stem should be cut into short lengths and repotted. So too the leafy top. Then you should soon have as many as half a dozen new plants.

Phuket Gardening is Phuket Gazette columnist Patrick Campbell’s feature of all things flora.

If you have a garden that you would like featured on this page, please email:

Keep checking our online Phuket Lifestyle pages for regular gardening features and tips.

— Patrick Campbell

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