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      14.04.2011 15:04
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      A bit of extra colour alongside Spring bulbs

      One plant which helps to brighten up the Spring isn't a bulb but a plant frequently used in borders, although is at its best when seen tumbling artlessly over rockeries, nestled between rocks or in crevices in garden walls. Aubretia which is sometimes known as Wall Cress or Brassicaceae, to give it its Latin name, is nearly always at the heart of any Spring planted garden and its soft cushions of colour act as a perfect foil for the more showy daffodils, hyacinths and tulips.

      The aubretia is part of the cabbage or brassica family as its Latin name implies and it was given the name aubretia after Claude Aubriet, an eighteenth century French botanical artist. Although an evergreen perennial, many people choose to use this plant in a similar way to summer bedding, especially as the foliage can become quite straggly after flowering is finished, and this is particularly so if it's been left untrimmed.

      Most of the aubretia plants on sale in garden centres or from nurseries are hybrids derived from one or other of the twelve species plant which originated in the rocky areas of Southern Europe and Asia and are cultivated for the temperate British climate with the ability to grow in many situations, though like their parents, they will thrive in rocky ground as long as there is some fertility in the soil. It's relatively cheap to buy both as plug plants or grown in pots for immediate planting with pot grown plants retailing around £1.50 or less.


      Appearance:

      Although the colours of aubretia can vary from white and and shades of the palest pinks to deep and vibrant purples, the flower shape remains essentially the same. It's a rather unprepossessing cruciform flower when looked at individually, with four slightly overlapping petals and yellow stamens forming a tiny central eye. The flowers are set above soft, slightly velvety grey-green leaves and when in full bloom the plant forms cushions of colour which can look spectacular and almost completely hide the foliage.

      My personal preference is for the more violet and purple flowered varieties which show to great advantage against the soft grey-green leaves.


      Height and spread

      Aubretia is essentially a ground cover plant and even when fully grown, plants only reach about 3 inches in height and have a spread of about two feet.


      Cultivation

      Ideally, this plant requires full sun and good quality soil which is well drained and neutral or alkaline in composition, although it will do reasonably well in partial shade. They are ideal for growing on rockeries and free draining banks.

      To keep the plants in good condition and compact, it's necessary to trim them back after flowering to prevent them from becoming thin and straggly.


      Propagation

      Although these can be grown from seed, I haven't had much success with either autumn sown seed which is allowed to over-winter or with spring sown seed either, so find it best to buy plants from a reputable garden centre or nursery. It's possible to take cuttings, in the summer after flowering is finished but, again, I've struggled to keep plantlets through the winter, even the milder ones, and have generally ended up the following spring with a pot of compost and nothing to show for it.

      If well tended and gently trimmed after flowering, plants will last a few years before it becomes necessary to replace them, although as I've already said, many people tend to treat these plants similarly to summer bedding and throw the plants away after flowering. As the foliage is very ordinary, it has to be said, these plants lose their wow factor once flowering is over.


      Pests

      As a spring flowering plant Aubretia don't have too many pests to contend with although aphids can be a problem unless treated at the first sign of infestation and eelworm can be a problem, too, as they will eat the roots and destroy the plant in the process.


      The Pros:

      - Look spectacular in full bloom
      - Excellent range of shades to choose from
      - Relatively cheap to buy, usually selling for around £1.50 for a small pot grown plant
      - Perennial and evergreen so offer some winter colour, even if it is green


      The Cons:

      - Need trimming after flowering to retain shape and condition
      - Can become straggly over time
      - Rather uninteresting plant after flowering is over
      - Plants might not survive severe winters if in exposed positions


      Summary:

      This is a useful addition to the Spring garden and looks especially attractive in a rockery alongside tiny species tulips and daffodils. Aubretia is one of those plants which rewards the gardener who gives it the care and attention it deserves. It only really performs and show to its best advantage, however, when it's given quite a bit of tender loving care as neglected plants are straggly and unattractive.

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