Gardening: Stalwarts and all

SPRING SENSATION: A mature pieris.SPRING SENSATION: A mature pieris.
SPRING SENSATION: A mature pieris.
If the soil is acid-rich, the vivid colours of pieris will brighten up your garden, writes David Overend.

Pieris are shrubs beloved of millions, and are a familiar sight in many gardens where they offer year-round interest. From spring, when they produce bell-shaped white flowers, followed by new leaf growth which starts off vivid red before calming to pink, cream and, finally, green, they are a hardy, evergreen stalwart for beds, borders and containers.

Pieris grow best in acidic, moderately fertile, humus-rich soil but young plants may need some protection in winter until they are established. Look closely and it’s possible to see that the family is actually related to heathers.

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Sadly, many specimens aren’t allowed to live up to their full potential. Uncaring gardeners, realising that pieris are pretty hardy and tolerant of many things, plant them in unsuitable soil or in unsuitable positions, allow other, more aggressive plants to steal their light and food, or else hack them back without and consideration.

On the other hand, there are gardeners who get everything right and their pieris grow to become compact, rounded, evergreen shrubs that produce those stunning spring displays of vivid fresh foliage – foliage which matures to dark green – and those long racemes of white blooms resembling lily of the valley.

Grow Pieris japonica in a sheltered, partially shaded spot in moist but well-drained, acidic soil and mulch annually with well-rotted pine needles and it could eventually become a stately specimen anything up to 12 feet in height and several feet wide.

Anyone yearning for such a spectacular plant in their own garden will have to wait quite a few years before it becomes a reality, but most people are more than happy to own a smaller version, especially if the garden in question struggles to provide the acidic soil needed by pieris.

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In this case, go to pot – fill a big container with ericaceous compost and plant your pieris in that. (Plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias also love soil which is acid-rich and will struggle to grow if your soil is more alkaline.)

To get the most out of a container-grown pieris, always cut off last season’s flower heads once they’re dead, to ensure plenty of fresh flowers for the following season, and top-dress the pot annually, removing the top few inches of old compost and replacing them with fresh – ericaceous, of course. It’s a lot easier than repotting the plant entirely.

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