Farewell to a friend

Ever curious, Charles headed cross country at A Place for Plants

Ever curious, Charles headed cross country at A Place for Plants

A year and a week ago we were touring summer gardens in England. We started in Suffolk again because that is where Charles and Gill Notcutt live. Today we heard that Charles has died.

On that last trip, Charles met us at Beth Chatto’s garden for lunch. While he was much more a tree man than a flower and garden man, I still recall his great pleasure at the delight and inspiration Mark and I felt in the dry garden there. He then said “follow me” and drove off in his Audi while we climbed into our very modest little rental car. What followed was an alarming pursuit through the back roads of Suffolk as we tried to keep Charles’ car in view because we had no idea where we were going. It was to Rupert and Sara Eley’s “A Place for Plants”. From there we went to Charles and Gill’s home where they hosted a dinner party in our honour.

This Suffolk pub, and I could find its name if I needed to, served the best ever hit chips with lunch

This Suffolk pub, and I could find its name if I needed to, served the best ever hot chips with lunch

The next day he took us to Blooms of Bressingham, we had lunch at a Suffolk pub which served the best hot chips Mark and I had ever eaten (nobody, we discovered, can do chips as well as some English pubs) and then went on to The Old Vicarage Garden in Norfolk. The next morning we said goodbye and headed north to Yorkshire.

These are such lovely memories to have and even at the time, we knew it may be the last time we would see Charles. Others will record his contribution to British horticulture through Notcutts’ nurseries and garden centres and various trade and professional bodies. It was how we first met him in the early nineties. He was also extremely active in contributing to his local community of Woodbridge, even serving as mayor in recent times.

It is Charles the man that we remember. He had an exceptional zest for life, such wide ranging interests – a modern Renaissance Man – underpinned by great kindness. We held him in the highest regard and felt privileged to have him as a friend in our lives.

RIP Charles. Our lives were made richer for having known you.
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Plant Collector: Chamaedorea woodsoniana

Attractive fruit but a worryingly large amount of it on the Chamaedorea woodsoniana

Attractive fruit but a worryingly large amount of it on the Chamaedorea woodsoniana

“Look at this,” said Mark putting the seed upon the table. “Off a small palm. It’s either the next invasive weed here or it has a future as a substitute in the palm oil industry.”

It took us a little while to track down the name. We knew it was a chamaedorea but there are quite a few different species so we had to go back to the original purchase to get the C. woodsoniana bit. Like most of the family, it hails from Mexico and Central America, growing in montane rainforest which is why we can grow it here. We can do the rain and the montane reference means it comes from areas with some altitude, making it a little bit hardier. However, given that its climate zone range is 10 to 11 (meaning that if the temperature plummets to around zero fahrenheit, it is not going to thrive – or even survive) and we have been moaning all week about the bitter chill of mid winter, we must be close to the limits of its tolerance. We have it planted on the margins of evergreen woodland so it will be protected from the worst of the cold. In its natural habitat, the palm encyclopaedia tells me it can reach 40 feet (about 12 metres) but we think that is extremely unlikely here. Ours is currently sitting around 2 metres and it is not growing like a rocket.

Mark tries to take the fruiting seeds off the bangalow palms here, to restrict their spread. He is now wondering if he is going to have to do it to this pretty chamaedorea too.

Chamaedorea woodsoniana growing in a protected position in our temperate climate

Chamaedorea woodsoniana growing in a protected position in our temperate climate

Garden Lore: “Touch the earth lightly”

“Touch the earth lightly, Use the earth gently
Nourish the life of the world in our care
Gift of great wonder, ours to surrender
Trust for the children tomorrow will bear.”

Verse 1 from the hymn “Touch the Earth Lightly” by Colin Gibson and Shirley Erena Murray (1991).
Photo0084 - Copy
Photo0072 - CopyReally it is the first line I like – “touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently” but I added the rest of the verse to give it context.

We went to a funeral this week which we do not often do, I admit. But in this case we both wanted to honour the late George Fuller. George was probably best known in this area as long standing curator of our main central city gardens, Pukekura Park, and as a defender of trees. In this role, he was more successful than we have been recently. His personal passion and his international reputation was in the field of orchids – hence the orchid display at his funeral.

To die at the age of 86, surrounded by a large, loving family and to leave behind a worthwhile legacy is to be celebrated. The selection of the hymn seemed particularly apt for such a gentle, humble man.

What a wonderful epitaph, or indeed a principle to live by – touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently.

Not quite lawn-free but leaning more to meadows

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One of the advantages of having our garden closed to the public for a year or two, or maybe more, is the freedom to experiment. And experimenting we are with lawns – or mown green areas may be a more accurate description. We stopped mowing half our park at the end of last winter, choosing instead to keep to a mown track meandering through, so it is possible to walk without getting wet feet.

We have been talking about lawns and grass for years here. Lawns are arguably the most environmentally unfriendly gardening practice of all. Yet there is considerable value placed on the perfect lawn and some people take great pride in achieving this. Perfection is measured against the bowling green which has no connection whatever to the home garden, let alone to nature.

I have never forgotten taking Mark along when I was doing an interview for a commissioned garden story. The owners were very proud of their lush, green sward and claimed that garden visitors often said they wanted to take their shoes off and walk barefoot or roll on it. I saw Mark throw me a telling glance and later he expostulated: “You want to let your bare skin touch that?’ For we both knew that sort of lawn perfection is only achievable by regular spraying with a fair range of chemicals, as well as fertiliser application and the usual frequent mowing, scarifying and over sowing that is required to keep it in such an artificial state.

The perfect lawn is a triumph of man or woman over nature, a dominance achieved at considerable cost to the environment and no small financial cost. There are all sorts of concerns around the western world about run-off from domestic lawns and frankly, when your lawn clippings are too toxic to put into the compost without risking your tomatoes and other crops for the next six months, there is a problem. Some folk will even kill off the worms with a residual spray in the quest for lawn perfection.

Mama Quail and two little feathered bumble bees of babies feeding on the lawn

Mama Quail and two little feathered bumble bees of babies feeding on the lawn

Mark is keen to have grass expanses with at least one flowering a year to feed the bees and other insect life. An added bonus has been unexpected. We made a decision a few years ago not to replace our cat, even though I adore fluffy felines. As a result, the Californian quail population has been steadily increasing and these lovely birds are a delight, foraging across the house lawns for seed. We might feel differently about a flowering lawn if we had small people in our lives running around bare footed, but in their absence, there is no need to worry about the bees.

We use a mulcher mower so the clippings are returned to the grass and this has eliminated any need to feed the lawn. Come early November, we let the grass grow long before cutting because then the dreaded Onehunga weed gets stretched and cut off before it can set its prickles. We do a certain amount of hand weeding to keep the flat weeds and undesirable grasses at bay in the house lawns. Beyond that, as long as it is fine or small leaved and cuts neatly, it is allowed to stay. Our lawns are more mixed colony environments than controlled grass species. We still mow regularly, but we are stretching out the intervals between mowing because we have become very aware of how dependent we now are on the motorised gardening aids and just how much fuel we have to buy to keep the mower, strimmer, chain saw and leaf blower running.

One of the delightful gardening books on my shelf is early Alan Titchmarsh, the Yorkshire gardener who is now a star TV presenter in the UK. Back in 1984, he wrote about The Lawn:
“Avant-gardeners do not have lawns; they have grass….The ‘bowling green’ lawn is a feature that belongs in front of council houses where it is surrounded by borders of lobelia, alyssum, French marigolds and salvias with standard fuchsias used as ‘dot plants’.

The avant-gardener’s grass is intermingled with daisies, plantains, buttercups… and plenty of moss (usually at least of 50% of the total coverage). This is a state of affairs to be encouraged. The grass is mown (avoiding a striped effect at all costs)…” (Avant-Gardening, a guide to one-upmanshop in the garden).

We have extensive areas of grass but have already decided that the front lawn should remain mown lawn rather than mixed meadow

We have extensive areas of grass but have already decided that the front lawn should remain mown lawn rather than mixed meadow

I admit we own the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers. It cost more than our car to buy

I admit we own the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers. It cost more than our car to buy

It does not appear that we have moved a long way since 1984 avant-garde thinking. If you are wondering what half our park looks like after six months without cutting the grass, I can report that the buttercup and self heal are thriving. To a critical eye it probably looks better in the shady areas than in the full sun but the mown strip is indeed like a path through a meadow and that is the effect we now want. We have worked out that we want the lawns immediately around the house more tightly maintained but, even in a large garden, we can achieve that without chemical intervention and top-up feeding. We see that as far more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the suburban value of an immaculate lawn.

First published in the June issue of the New Zealand Gardener and repinted here with their permission.

Flood!

001It rained yesterday. A lot. We are accustomed to heavy rain here and are blessed with very free draining soils. The dogs hate the rain and won’t go out until it is near emergency time for them. But the rain, it continued. Mark lost track of the rain gauge around 200ml during the day.
002OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADown in our park is the lowest area of our property but over the years, we had eliminated flooding with a weir, flood channel and stop banks. Until yesterday. That is what we refer to as the high bridge in the very centre behind the magnolia – featured often in photographs. It is a low grade phone camera image because I was not going to risk my new camera in the torrential rain. The water is flowing right over the bridge.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn fact the better part of park was flooded and resembled a raging torrent. It is usually such a quiet little stream that flows through. Half of it is channelled through the garden as here, and half is diverted down the separate flood channel. It all became one yesterday.

006When we made our way out to the road, we saw why our park was flooding. This is the corner where the stream enters our property.
006 (2)And the scene to the right of the intersection which is also our place.
007 (2)But nothing must stop the petrochemical traffic (though we notice it has stopped today so the road damage must be a concern). This massive LNG tanker ploughed blindly through without checking that there was still road beneath, which was a bit of a surprise to us.
008The ute that tried it next was not so lucky. He hit the water too fast and stalled. Fortunately help was to hand for towing him out because the water was flowing through his vehicle and the current could well have swept it away.
016There is a lesson on negotiating flood waters, even in the big 4 wheel drive offroad vehicles much favoured today. We noticed a Jeep Cherokee in our carpark, but didn’t find out until later in the day that it too had stalled in the water. The occupants had to escape through a window because the water was up the doors. It was towed to the closest safe place, which was ours. We joked about claiming salvage rights over it but he arrived today to try and start it. It didn’t. Start, I mean, so it is still parked there.
003The shocker was this car. It is just around the corner to the right, out of view to those of us on the other road. The occupants were our elderly neighbours who had to be rescued out of the car window. They were very shocked, but not otherwise injured. With hindsight, we worry how close they came to drowning and none of us on the other road would even have known they were there, a few metres out of sight.
021This morning, the waters were receding. It is messy but we have not yet found any major damage on our place. Others have not been as lucky. It is perhaps a timely warning about the power of Nature and the increasing frequency of what are referred to as “extreme weather events. And always live in a house on a hill, not on a flood plain.
027Where Mark and dogs are standing was half a metre under water at this time yesterday.

Tikorangi Notes: Friday 19 June, 2015

017I have a new camera and while I am still learning to use it, I doubt that I could have captured the monarchs on the montanoa with my old one, even before it decided to shuffle off the mortal coils and go where digital cameras go to die. I mentioned the Mexican tree daisy last week, asking for identification. Such are the wonders of the internet, it took less than 20 minutes for the botanical name to be supplied to me – Montanoa bipinnatifida. I am attempting to commit this to memory, although I keep getting sidetracked onto bipolar manatees which won’t do at all.
024It was a comment left on this site that had me heading down to check out the montanoa on a sunny mid-winter’s day, to find it positively dancing with monarch butterflies. “It’s a natural food source for monarch butterflies, as it also comes from Mexico”, the reader said. Given that monarchs are recorded as self-introducing to this country around 1840 and generally produce two generations a year, that means at least 350 generations have passed since the Mexican connection so I think the montanoa is perhaps better described as being an “indigenous food source for monarch butterflies in Mexico”. But a source of winter nectar, it certainly is. It was a joy to see.

The felling of the Waitara riverside pohutukawa yesterday – the ones that we had fought so hard to save – followed by heavy rain today have thwarted my plans to complete the clean-up on the second block of large Kurume azaleas that I also mentioned last week. But as I hauled away multiple barrow-loads of prunings, it occurred to me that the spending of maybe two weeks’ sustained work to complete a task that nobody else (other than Mark) will even notice has been done, represents fairly high level gardening skills. For much has actually been done. It is greatly improved but there is little evidence to show that.

From the point of view of the gardener, the hard hack and slash approach may be more rewarding in the short term – you can see exactly what you have done and it is a quick result. But as far as the garden goes, a gentler technique which leaves the overall scene refined but visually similar, masking how much has been taken out, is a different skill set. There is “cutting back” and then there is what I have heard called “blind pruning” – which is cutting back without leaving a visible trail of destruction. It takes more time and skill but is worth the effort for intensively managed areas of the garden.
056I was so discouraged when I left the scene of institutional and bureaucratic vandalism that was the Waitara pohutukawa that I had to take refuge in scenes of nature that are beyond the reach of the desecrators. I have been enjoying the sight of red hot pokers (kniphofia) on the road verges. Just an African plant that has adapted to its role as a roadside wild flower in New Zealand – a bright splash of colour in the gloom.
109And at home I raised my eyes upwards to drink in the sights of our trees. We have many large trees here, evergreen and deciduous, native and introduced. While by no means the largest of our trees, this scene of magnolias, silver birch and Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) soothed my soul.

I admit I probably took eleventy thousand photos of the monarchs this week

I admit I probably took eleventy thousand photos of the monarchs this week

Gone in a morning – the loss of the Waitara riverbank pohutukawa

Gone. The view from the lookout on Manukorihi Hill.

Gone. The view from the lookout on Manukorihi Hill.

Regular readers will know of our battle to save the pohutukawa trees that line our local river. We lost. Today the chainsaws moved in. In a couple of short hours, trees that were over sixty years old were felled to the ground.
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Clearly there was some concern about the possibility of protests. Ironically the body that was hellbent on felling these trees is also the body charged with protecting the environment – that is what we call a Tui billboard moment in New Zealand vernacular. In a case of overkill, Taranaki Regional Council marshalled their staff to patrol the entrances to the area. Why, there was even a boat patrolling the river access. They would have been very cold out there on the river for a few hours. Truly, it is mid-winter here and most of us feel a little too old to scale large trees in order to protect them, so the fear of the operation being disrupted by protest was unfounded.

But oh, how sad to see the needless desecration of handsome, well established trees. Despite their public relations spin, the Taranaki Regional Council didn’t consult widely. They preferred to talk to people who said what they wanted to hear. As the protesting voices grew, rather than taking another look at the plans and seeing whether saving the trees could be accommodated, they set about discrediting, denying and deriding the opposing voices.
053How anybody in their right mind could think that the hostile expanse of concrete flood wall, topped with barbed wire (it is doing double duty as a security wall for the meat packing works behind) was an appropriate form of town flood protection in this day and age is beyond comprehension. It looks like a prison wall. This is the face of Waitara in 2015. We regard it as simply shameful action by Taranaki Regional Council.
042While the chainsaws worked at one end of the row, the digger driver proved that you don’t need chainsaws at the other end – the might of the machine means you can break apart the trees. There was no sign that the men on the site felt any sorrow at the unceremonious felling.

Once were trees. The new view from our town bridge

Once were trees. The new view from our town bridge

With ever increasing population in urban areas, we had thought that the role of protecting mature and handsome trees fell increasingly upon our local bodies, particularly in public spaces. These trees had the potential to live for many hundreds of years without causing any harm or inconvenience to residents while enhancing the centre of Waitara. No more.

Will this pretty scene downstream be allowed to remain?

Will this pretty scene downstream be allowed to remain?

Earlier plans were to fell ALL the riverbank trees. There is fear that this might yet happen. I found this pretty scene just down the river a little further. I wonder if it, too, will suffer the same treatment in the next year or two because the engineer who designed the flood protection doesn’t think there is any place for trees on river banks.

There is no place like home

There is no place like home

Fortunately, I do not live in the town itself so I could come home to our own place with its many, very large trees to soothe my heavy heart. These at least are beyond the reach of the chainsaw-happy regional council.