Perhaps my favourite greenhouse job of the year is releasing the contents of my mini greenhouse into the wider garden. Fly, my pretties, fly! The mini greenhouse receives a tiny bit of heat through the winter, just a low constant from a propagating mat, and this allows me to overwinter some of my favourite plants: the aeoniums and the pelargoniums. They hate to be inside but can’t take a frost, and so this is the happy medium I have found that just about gets them through. They have been tucked up in there since October and with this sudden spell of perfect early summer weather I decided to fling open the doors and pull them all out. And oh my. What a mess. It is true that they are often not looking their best after this prolonged spell inside – plants thrive best in the gardener’s shadow and I barely touch them once they are in there, partly because they are tricky to get to – all packed in as they are – and partly because it is cold and miserable outside and I’d rather be indoors drinking tea. And so every winter they suffer, but generally once they are out in the wider garden in the warm air they recover quickly, putting on new growth and shaking off the trials of their winter home.
This year they are in a worse state than usual and I quickly suspected that something else was afoot. Aeoniums are always prone to keeling over, the roots are shallow and they are tall, often single stemmed plants with all the weight at the top of the stem. But this year as I pulled them out almost all took and extreme dive, and this suggests that something has been having a go at the roots, and that that something was vine weevil. Aeonium ‘Sunburst’ – a pretty variegated aeonium that I bought from a stall on St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall years ago – pulled itself from the soil the second it was no longer supported by its neighbours and revealed a pathetic root system clearly struggling to do its job. I tipped the compost into a bucket and sure enough there were the telltale white curled grubs of the dastardly vine weevil. Not only that but two adult vine weevils were tucked away in the foliage! A serious infestation, needing a serious solution.
With the plant looking so spindly and the problem so extreme, the only real answer was to start again. Happily, aeoniums are very easy to propagate from. Essentially you just chop off a section of stem and push it into fresh (vine weevil free) compost, ideally one that has been mixed with plenty of grit, as aeoniums have succulent stems and will rot if there is too much moisture in the soil. Because of this the cuttings also take better if they are left for a day or two, allowing the moist ends of the stems to callus over. Once this has happened, push them straight into the compost, water it well, and wait.
I realise looking at my over wintered collection that I have quite a job ahead of me, emptying each pot, shaking off the soil, repotting, cutting back and taking cuttings. But it is worth it as I realise that aeoniums and pelargoniums are the backbone of my summer garden, the ones everything else revolves around, so spectacular are they between them in foliage and flower. They deserve a little extra tlc, because I know that – reinvigorated – they will reward me many times over with a beautiful display all summer long.