Wollemi pine update

wollemi pine 2The recently discovered Wollemi pine was a topic of discussion on the Don Burke gardening radio program recently. This fossil conifer has been a source of considerable disappointment to many gardeners since its release. One could reasonably think that a species of tree that has survived for 200 million years, according to the accompanying care guide, would be fairly hardy, but this is not the case. These trees cannot handle heavy rainfall, drought, or full sun. They are easily stressed, and prone to phytophthora root rot, as well several other soil diseases.

The tree I received last Christmas was soon re-potted into a slightly larger container with some coco peat, compost and worm castings as fertiliser, and a little coarse river sand. After re-potting, the tree was positioned on a verandah on the northern side of our house, but it quickly became apparent that it was not happy in a warm environment, and was transferred to the verandah on the south side where it has survived, but has made only a couple of centimetres growth. The care guide gives no real indication of the species’ fussy moisture requirements other than the vague advice to “check moisture levels regularly”. Neither did the care guide state that soil in the area where the trees were discovered could have a pH as low as 4, which is too acidic for most plants to survive, or that a coir supplier had developed a special potting mix for these trees.

Don said that little information on the species had been available, resulting in the death of a lot of purchased Wollemi pines, and asked a spokesman from Sydney’s Botanic Gardens why the tree had been released for sale prematurely. The spokesman’s response was that it was to prevent people from damaging the discovery site when attempting to obtain a specimen of these trees. This reasoning would be easier to accept if they didn’t charge such exorbitant prices for these pines.

My advice, if you would like to grow a Wollemi pine, is to visit the web site below and find out if you can provide suitable conditions for this plant before outlaying any money.


When to sow seed

Ian, lIke many other gardeners, is unsure whether he should sow and transplant in the correct moon phase, or sow seeds by the moon phase and transplant anytime, or sow seeds anytime and transplant by the moon.

Over many years of experimenting with moon planting, we’ve found that it is more important to sow seed during the correct phase, than it is to plant out during the correct phase. Seedlings of some varieties of annuals are large enough for transplanting by the time the next correct phase comes around, so it is easy to sow and transplant in the same phase. Others varieties take a shorter, or longer, time to reach transplanting stage, and my advice is that these should be planted out when they are ready, and when climate conditions are suitable, whatever the moon phase. Seedlings sown in a tray will suffer some transplant shock because they often have to be teased apart for transplanting, and these will require some TLC until they become established. However, annual seedlings sown in segmented punnets or individual tubes suffer very little transplant shock and it does not seem to matter when they are transplanted because their root balls are buffered by surrounding mix.

Planting out during the correct phase is important for perennials as strong establishment of the root system is essential for vigorous growth of these plants. This group includes fruit trees and crowns of asparagus, artichokes, herbacous perennials, strawberries, etc., as well as all trees, shrubs and vines.
Most root crop annuals are best sown direct where they are to grow as many don’t perform well when transplanted. If you have to transplant these because mice or ants steal seeds sown in beds, and they are ready to transplant in an incorrect moon phase, just give them some extra TLC. Moon planting gives some extra help in getting plants growing, it is not essential to their survival.

Traditional moon planting is based on observations of farmers for many centuries but very little scientific research has been carried out on why, exactly, certain seeds germinate faster, and grow quickly when sown at particular times, and why cuttings form roots more quickly when taken during Full Moon phase. A brief coverage of this subject on a David Suzuki TV program some years ago stated that fluctuations in sap flow and plant hormones corresponded with the Moon’s gravitation pull, as did subtle variations in Earth’s electro-magnetic field. I think the changes in the electro-magnetic field might be the key to why moon planting works, as plants can only absorb nutrients as water soluble, electrically–charged particles. A serious scientific study of this subject would be most interesting.

Transplanting Frangipani

Glen, in Melbourne, wants to know the best time to transplant a well-established frangipani tree from a pot to the soil, and should he do anything to the soil. The best time to transplant Frangipani is at the end of winter, while the tree is still dormant but close to breaking dormancy. In Warm climates, this can be done from the second week in August (during a Full Moon phase) but, as Melbourne has some more cold weather to come, Glen would be wise to wait until early September. Before planting any tree it is wise to check soil drainage, and this is extremely important for Frangipani as they won’t tolerate wet feet. (See Planting trees ) If soil is on the heavy side, some coarse river sand can be mixed through the soil used to fill the hole. The hardest part about transplanting Frangipani is getting them out of the pot because their roots are very brittle and can snap off if jolted, especially if the plant is large. If the tree is in a plastic pot, the safest way is to cut the pot away to remove the tree. If the tree is in a very sturdy pot, run a piece of wire around the inside rim of the pot to loosen the root ball, or hose gently around the inside edge of the pot. Then gently turn the pot on its side and ease the tree from the pot. If the pot has a large hole in the base, a broom handle or dowel can be used to gently push the root ball from the base. After settling the tree in its new location, water gently to settle the soil but do not tramp the soil down. Apply a 5 cm layer of mulch when soil has warmed, keeping mulch clear of the trunk to avoid collar rot. Although the Frangipani is very drought tolerant, the tree will need regular watering until established. Water when the top cm of soil is dry.

Rose planting time…

rdrose2Some nurseries are advertising bare-rooted roses for sale. This is just a reminder to, if possible, avoid purchasing bare-rooted roses before the end of June, as roses that have been lifted before they are fully dormant do not usually grow well.
Potted roses can be planted as soon as they are dormant, if your area is not prone to severe frosts.
For rose planting guide-lines see: here
Planting shrubs and vines

Wollemi Pine

wollumi.jpg‘Santa’ surprised me at Christmas with the gift of a potted Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis). This particular species is an ancient and rare Australian native that was recently discovered. The location of the pines has been kept secret to prevent people taking seedlings and damaging the forest. Plants available from nurseries have been reproduced by tissue culture. Each tree comes with a Certificate of Authenticity and a monthly care guide.
Unlike most pines, this living fossil from the Jurassic age has flattened leaflets that grow more in the manner of fern fronds than pine branches. The Wollemi pine also tends to grow with multiple trunks. New growth is pinky-bronze, changing to apple green, then deep green. After the age of 7 years, it will produce both male and female cones at the tips of the branches. ‘Polar caps’ form to protect the growing tips from cold weather. And, sap oozing from the stem is not a sign of disease but an indication that a new growth bud is about to emerge from the bark.
I will put my pine into a larger pot for the time being; as I need to have a serious think about where it should be planted. It is said to require a “well-drained, fertile soil” but, as Wollemi Pines prefer a low phosphorus fertiliser, planting the tree amid exotics that have high fertiliser requirements would not be an option. They can grow, at the rate of half a metre per annum to 20 m x 5 m. As our house was built on a stony ridge, the best positions for this tree would be some distance from the house. They will grow in part shade to full sun, are quite water-efficient, and can be pruned, if necessary, during winter.
However, as these pines can also be grown as tub plants in a sheltered position, out of full sun, I may eventually decide to grow it in a tub, near the house, so that I can enjoy its unusual foliage and growth habit through the seasons.
The Wollemi pine, Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba), California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Grass Trees (Xanthorrhoea) and the Asian and Australian cycads and their relatives (Cycas, Bowenia, Lepidozamia and Macrozamia) all provide a fascinating insight into our planet’s flora long before man walked the earth. These trees have proven their adaptability over thousands of years and some, including the Calfornia Redwood, grow to more modest proportions in our climate. Many of these lovely plants are suitable for cultivation in gardens or parks, especially if they are grown organically to maintain a good level of soil micro-organism activity.

Buying seedlings

lettuce.1.jpgIf possible, purchase seedlings for your garden from your local nursery, rather than from gardening departments of large chain stores. Apart from assisting your local economy, you will find that reputable nurseries only stock seedlings that are suitable for your local climate at that time. Companies such as Coles and Bunnings, for example, have a single despatch point for seedlings that are sent to stores all over Australia. Staff at their local stores have no say in ordering seedlings, and must accept whatever is sent.
Not all vegetables and flowering annuals will grow successfully in all climates in the same season. Spring – summer can be too hot in warm climates for some varieties that will grow well in milder climates, while late summer – autumn plantings are only suitable for warmer climates. To avoid frustration and disappointment with your gardening efforts, only purchase seedlings from the large chains when you know exactly which vegetables or flowering annuals are suitable for growing in your area at a particular time.

Pruning hibiscus

Hawaiian hibiscus are pruned in spring at the beginning of new growth. This is because these plants are very sensitive to ‘cold snaps’ after pruning, and it is also easier to see just where to prune. In temperate areas, leaving the pruning of Hawaiian hibiscus until the first weekend in October is a good rule of thumb.
Immediately before new growth begins, lower leaves turn bright yellow and fall from the plants, and growth buds swell. Pruning hibiscus during First Quarter phase will result in faster recovery from pruning. Remove all withered branches with sharp secateurs, and also remove any branches pointing towards the centre of the plant. Then reduce the size of each plant by a third, cutting above an outward-facing growth bud.
Finally, give the plants a deep watering, a generous feeding of poultry-based organic fertiliser and a drink of seaweed extract tea. Add some compost to the soil surface, if you have it, and cover it with a 7-8 cm thick layer of organic mulch. Hawaiiian hibiscus are heavy feeders, and will continue to supply large blooms if further light applications of organic fertiliser are given every 6 weeks, or so, until May.
All species of hibiscus other than Alyogynes can be pruned at the same time as Hawaiian hibiscus. Alyogynes are pruned lightly after summer flowering.

Spring bulbs

jonquil.jpg Don’t forget to water your spring bulbs regularly while they are in active growth. When flowering has finished, remove spent flower heads, and give them a drink of seaweed extract tea (e.g. Natrakelp). If the bed was well fertilised before planting the bulbs, they are unlikely to require any other fertiliser during the growing period.
Continue watering, and don’t remove foliage or lift bulbs until all the foliage has died back. While it may look untidy to some gardeners, it is important to leave foliage because the yellowing and fading occurs as the plants withdraws nutrients from the leaves to store in the bulbs for next season’s growth. Depriving spring bulbs of this essential part of their growth cycle will result in poor, or no, flowering next spring.


Frangipani trees do not require regular pruning. If a branch is inconveniently placed, it can be removed during winter while the tree is dormant. Frangipani trees will bleed sap if pruned during a growth period. Do not shorten branches of frangipani trees, or dieback will occur. On all trees and shrubs, a thickening of the stem forms where the new branch begins to grow. This is called the ‘collar’, or ‘wrinkle’. On frangipani trees, remove the entire branch, cutting through the branch at the outer edge of the collar. If you remove the branch flush with the trunk, scar tissue that forms will damage the phloem layer that transports carbohydrates in plants.
If you want to take cuttings from your frangipani, the best time to do this is at the end of winter. Remove a lateral branch for each cutting, as described above. Keep these in a dry spot, out of direct sunlight, for a couple of weeks to allow the cut end to form scar tissue. If you take the cuttings during Last Quarter phase, they should be ready for potting during the following Full Moon phase.
For each cutting, half fill a 20 cm pot (with plenty of holes in the base) with well-washed coarse sand that has a little moistened coco peat or compost mixed through it to help keep the mixture damp. Avoid using a normal potting mix for frangipani cuttings because they will rot if the mixture stays too moist. Anchor the cutting in the sandy mix, and gradually fill the pot with the same mix, you may need a short stake to keep it upright. If the cutting is very large (1.5 m), you will need a larger pot with plenty of drainage holes and 3 stakes to support the cutting. Gardening Australia has an excellent video of this method: https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/staking-a-tree/9493998

I find strips cut across old T-shirts or men’s singlets make could flexible plant ties. Gently water the mix to settle it around the cutting. A drink of seaweed extract tea can help stimulate root growth. Place potted cuttings in a warm, well-lit area, out of direct sunlight, and keep the cutting mix just damp. During spring, when white roots appear at the holes near the base of the pot, your cutting is ready for transplanting.
Frangipani roots are very brittle, and may snap if you tip the plant out of the pot. Gently remove the mix from the top half of the pot, and then use a hose to gently wash the rest of the sand away. Transplant into well-drained soil in a sunny position. Mature frangipanis are quite drought-tolerant but young plants will require a weekly watering in dry weather until they are making good growth. Organic mulch is beneficial if it is kept well clear of the trunk. These trees only require a light application of complete organic fertiliser in spring (but not at planting time).

Taking cuttings

Full Moon phase is a good time to take cuttings, and cuttings can be taken from deciduous plants from hardwood stems, while pruning. Always trim to a horizontal cut at the bottom of the stem to be used for cuttings, and make a slanted cut at the top, otherwise it is easy to plant deciduous cuttings upside down. The chosen section should contain 5 or more nodes (joints in the stem) to allow for trimming.
Fill pots with a sandy potting mix, and trim the base of the cuttings (with a horizontal cut) to just below a node. Position the cuttings around the inside edge of each pot spaced far enough apart to allow roots to spread. Try to have two nodes below the level of the potting mix. Water gently to settle the mix around the cuttings. Keep potting mix just damp, and keep cuttings in a warm, well-lit area out of direct sunlight and wind until the cuttings show signs of growth. Carefully move them into separate pots and feed with weak fertiliser tea, until ready for planting out.