How soon is it before you kill off your seasonal Christmas plants? There is quite a silence about this issue, even among deeply committed gardeners who think they are working to save the planet. Over Christmas cocktails, one of them gestured towards his overwatered azaleas and told me that he treated them like cut flowers and always threw them out after a maximum of six weeks. He then returned to the topic of gardening as if it was something completely different and berated me for trying to grow alpine plants and losing them after a few years outdoors.
I went back to my azaleas and cyclamen and contemplated them. Most of those in our houses are under a death sentence in the next month from owners who also regard them as disposable decoration. I hope mine are in remission. By far my best non-human companions over the long break have been pots of cyclamen in their new, wondrous forms. After years of experimenting, I think I have learned how to save their lives. If you want to live with them, you have to make compromises.
My current thinking is that it is important that they are called cycla-men, not cycla-women. What they hate most is to be warm and cosy. They prefer the central heating to be kept off or low when they are in the house. The main reason why so many thousands will be killed in the next few weeks is that owners keep them in rooms which are far too hot for them and then water them from the top too often – cyclamen prefer to draw their drink from the bottom up. Stand them in a dish of cold water which is wider than the pot and they will draw all the water up into their compost.
Even then, they are unpredictable. Many more are killed by overwatering than by underwatering, and I find the balance hard to judge. Usually, a bottom-watered cyclamen is wet enough for at least a week. Try to judge its needs by the weight of the plastic pot when you lift it and test it. It is light and least resistant to the touch when it needs watering. Lift it up and test after watering and you will have a standard by which to judge. The surface of the potting compost is a poor guide as you will be watering only from below. Never put water directly on to the plant’s central tuber. It is almost always an encouragement for all the leaves to flop.
Even if you avoid this, they will still sometimes flop. If the pot feels very light when lifted, the cause is drought and a watering from below will usually save the day. A few leaves may turn yellow as it recovers, but they are not a serious loss. Cut them off, leaving a short length of stem uncut by the central tuber. Never pull the leaf off brusquely, as you will tear the surface of the tuber and cause serious trouble.
As the flowers age, some of their stems will start to lean outwards. Check that the flower on a leaning stem is dying and cut the stem away. If you bought sensibly, you will have plenty of young buds wanting space to develop in its place. However, a leaning flower stem with an unfading flower on it can also be a first sign that total collapse is imminent. When this begins, it is remarkably rapid. All the leaves flop and then start to shrivel. This is the moment when decorators, not gardeners, fetch the dustbin and say nothing about it. Always check the danger list through before watering thoughtlessly and making the problem even worse. The dangers are heating, overwatering, bad tuber-management and, only then, drying-out.
I also think the plants are capricious. I have two, two feet apart on the same table, and yet one has been trying to flop, lean and go yellow within a week of arrival, while its near neighbour is in fabulous form.
Most of all, I enjoy the bad press which great garden writers give this branch of the cyclamen family when they have to discuss it. Christopher Lloyd calls the breeders’ work for it a tragedy and that great military expert, Colonel Lucas Phillips, contrasts the “showy” sorts for Christmas with the hardy forms which have an “exquisite elfin beauty of their own”. Since he wrote his classic 1952 guide The Small Garden the breeders have taken their revenge. Christmas cyclamen now come in the most beautiful small-flowered forms, as “elfin” as any colonel could wish. I winced when seedsmen first bred a strain they called Scentsation but they certainly reintroduced a superb scent to the trade. They have now worked on the underlying wild parent, Cyclamen persicum, and increased its volume of flower far beyond its usual show in the wild. The scent is still there and the new miniature strains are a rebuke to the sort of eco-gardener who likes to grumble about all the work breeders do. The new forms combine scent, about 20 flowers on each tiny plant and just the same combination of transparently pale pink petals and a deep rose or magenta mark at their base. It is much easier to enjoy their delicacy on a table than at ground-level on the pine-needles of a Turkish forest.
What, ultimately, is gardening all about? It is not about being something vaguely called “organic”. It is not about buying throwaway plants while trying to harbour “wildlife” outdoors. It is about deceiving plants from all over the world into growing, doing their best for us and completing their life-span, often while we arrange and place them in deceptive settings where they will simply look good, not necessarily beautiful, to our eye. It takes artificial heat to make cyclamen seed sprout and more heat and occasional spraying to make the seedlings grow. A thermostat helps and the plants prefer a neutral soil without lime which you may well have to buy in a special bag because nature has not given it to your garden. You then need plastic pots and the vigilant routine I have described if the plants are to be conned into weeks of flower. Gardening needs all possible aids if this cyclamen deception is to succeed. It cannot be split into throwaway pot-plants and worthy eco-planting.
Now I know how to keep a hybrid cyclamen happy indoors, I will buy a better electric propagator, turn up the current and spend money and effort on deceiving seedlings of my own.
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