Petal carpets, the garden in September

Petal carpets are a second delight

Petal carpets are a second delight

We do good spring gardens in New Zealand. This is just as well in Taranaki, because spring stretches out well past the prescribed three months – from August to early December, I would suggest. The combination of a lack of extremes in temperature, high rainfall and high sunshine hours keeps us in extended flowering mode.

Petal carpets feature large for us. Spring storms may batter plants in bloom but with large trees, the strewn petals offer a second delight, albeit shorter-lived. These used to be more problematic before we discovered a bane of suburban life that is a boon for large gardens – the leaf blower. Once the petals start to discolour and decay, we blow them onto the garden beds where they can quickly rot away to nothing. There is nowhere near the nutritional compost value in fallen petals that there is in leaves, but they are part of the cycle of nature.

Magnolia Iolanthe

Magnolia Iolanthe

The magnolia season continues. The original specimen of Iolanthe is beside our driveway and now measures around 10 metres tall and 7 metres across. In the glory of full bloom, it takes our breath away year after year. If you can give trees the room to grow to maturity, future generations may thank you.

The big-leafed rhododendrons in our park are already passing over. They are showy but flower very early in the season and are vulnerable to frost. They are also difficult to propagate and take up a lot of space so you rarely find them offered for sale. If you are determined, raising them from seed is the best option for the patient gardener. Other rhododendrons are opening however and the season extends right through to Christmas.

Rhododendron 'Eyestopper'

Rhododendron ‘Eyestopper’

I am madly digging, dividing and reorganising summer perennials. We returned from our trip to see English summer gardens inspired and energised. We were very focussed this time, wanting to see the contemporary gardens rather than the classics like Hidcote, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. Gardening, after all, moves on and the Arts and Crafts garden style derives from the first decades of last century.

We haven’t heard much in this country about the New Perennials Movement, naturalistic gardening, the Sheffield School and prairie gardening but it has been as big a revolution in garden design and planting as the garden rooms of Arts and Crafts were in their day, or the cottage garden genre that followed. It is a whole lot more than just adding in grasses to perennial plantings, as some sniffily deride.

We were lucky to get into a few private gardens that are not open to the public and we looked at the work of some of the major designer-practioners – Piet Oudolf, Christopher Bradley Hole, Tom Stuart Smith and the late Henk Gerritsen, as well as lesser-known gardeners.

Our conditions are different so it will never work taking the lessons from another country and imposing them here. We need to use different plants in many cases (pampas grass is on our banned list and the lovely Stipa tenuissima is threatening to become a noxious weed according to the Weedbuster’s website). Our management also requires different strategies and some of the gardening practices we saw just won’t work here.

But the underpinning philosophy is relevant and many of the ideas are challenging our preconceived notions. We are serious about the move to more environmentally friendly gardening even though it will push the boundaries of what most New Zealand gardeners regard as acceptable in terms of tolerance for weeds. Our interests also lie in extending our spring flowering well through summer and into autumn and we can’t achieve this without managing perennials much better. No matter. We are inspired. And as gardeners, we take the longer term view.

Wildside in North Devon was the one that excited us most

Wildside in North Devon was the one that excited us most

Of all the gardens we looked at in detail – and there were over 20 of them – the one that really made us buzz with excitement was Wildside in North Devon. This is the garden created by Keith and Ros Wiley. You will have to make do with Googling it or buying Keith’s book because they have now closed to the public. This garden was an inspiration in every way. It brought together vision, energy, determination, sheer hard work and advanced plantsmanship which left us in awe.

First published in the New Zeakland Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

Points of interest

In an otherwise undistinguished garden in Giverny village, these clipped hummocks gave real impact.

In an otherwise undistinguished garden in Giverny village, these clipped hummocks gave real impact.

Punctuation points. That is what clipped shrubs can be. Very effective punctuation points, at that.

Formal gardens will often have pretty much everything clipped. If you have ever been to many Italian gardens, you may have noted the inclination to clip everything – at times to within an inch of its life. It photographs well. In fact we have often found that the photograph can be better than the real thing when you get to see it.

The modern New Zealand garden is characterised by clipped hedging, often carried out with military precision whether 30cm or 200 cm high.

But if you don’t want a formal garden or clipped hedging, there is a middle path. Punctuation marks.

Clipped accent plants give form in this garden which has predominantly loose herbaceous plantings and grassy meadows. Pettifers near Stratford on Avon.

Clipped accent plants give form in this garden which has predominantly loose herbaceous plantings and grassy meadows. Pettifers near Stratford on Avon.

It is the English gardeners who can lay claim to the mix of formality and informality. At one level, it is that act of taking hard edged design and softening it with froth as the proponents of the Arts and Crafts garden movement did.

It is a technique that you can transfer to many situations. At its simplest level, a tightly clipped shrub gives a focal point of order in a casual or chaotic environment. If your garden looks an unkempt mess, try it. You may be surprised at how a formal shape can make the disorganised areas alongside look as if they are intentional.

A sequence of clipped punctuation points gives coherence or visual order to an otherwise disorganised space. Sometimes it is a deliberate design feature, other times it may be closer to an act of trickery by a laissez faire gardener.

While the topiary bird At Gresgarth may be beyond the amateur, the sharp lines give contrast to the informal plantings and design.

While the topiary bird at Gresgarth may be beyond the amateur, the sharp lines give contrast to the informal plantings and design.

As you progress up the status ladder, a clipped shrub can become a deliberate focus to act as counterpoint to more informal plantings. It is then filling the role that others may choose to try and fill with manmade objects – a bird bath, a seat, maybe a sculpture – but there is a logical orderliness to a well tended shrub that those other objects may lack.
Pyramids on stilts give an accent point, a breathing space between two very different gardens at Bury Court.

Pyramids on stilts give an accent point, a breathing space between two very different gardens at Bury Court.


I have also seen small groupings of clipped shrubs used as a breathing space, a quiet linking device between two very busy but different areas of a garden.
Various shrubs can be clipped effectively. There are the tried and true hedging plants of buxus, lonicera and teucrium. Yew is a classic clipping candidate.
Often referred to as “pudding trees”, these Chamaecyparis give structure in the otherwise informal cottage garden made by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor

Often referred to as “pudding trees”, these Chamaecyparis give structure in the otherwise informal cottage garden made by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor


Camellias clip well. If you can cope with the prickles, so do hollies. Choysia ternata takes clipping. Evergreen azaleas take clipping and shaping well. So indeed do our native totara and matai. Some conifers can be clipped, some cannot. The mark of one that does not take clipping is a failure to sprout afresh from bare wood (in other words, where you have cut below the external leaf cover). It can be terribly blotchy and twiggy on conifers, if not terminal. Do some research first before you try this on your prized specimen.

The more you clip, the denser the new growth becomes so the tighter shape you get as a result. But if you are considering a first hard clip to establish a shape, do it right now. This very weekend is good. That is because at the end of the day, most plants are on the cusp of breaking into fresh spring growth (spot my political allusion). The aim is to clip before that happens, stimulating the plant to make fresh new growths at the point where you have cut it back. You will generally have to follow up with a tidy-up trim of long new growths a bit further down the season, but the first clip is the most radical shaping. Once established, you can often get away with just once a year.

Or clip on special occasions when you want your garden to look sharp, cared for or creative.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Plant Collector: Magnolia Iolanthe

The inimitable Magnolia Iolanthe

The inimitable Magnolia Iolanthe

I cannot let the season pass without celebrating magnolias. At this time of the year we live and breathe these flowering trees and the settled weather has meant a particularly good season this year. Not all of them get as large as this glorious specimen of ‘Iolanthe’. In this country, it is a lucky tree that is permitted to survive into its sixth decade without being unceremoniously severed from its roots.

Iolanthe was the product of Felix Jury’s first attempts to hybridise magnolias. He was looking for larger blooms with good colour. Certainly the bloom is still exceptional with its large cup and saucer form. The colour has been criticised for its lavender hue, but I can tell you that it remains spectacular. Because it sets flower buds down the stem, it has one of the longest season of any of our many magnolias here. Some only set buds on the tips where they all come out at once. As soon as they pass over – or if they are hit by strong wind, heavy rain or frost – that is it for the year as far as floral display goes. Not so with Iolanthe. Twice we have seen the display turned to mush by extraordinary frost events but a few days later, a fresh flush of blooms has opened and the display is back. From first to last spring bloom, we get about two months of flowering, of which maybe three weeks is full glory. It repeat flowers in summer, though as the tree is then in full leaf, it is nowhere near as showy or prolific – more a bonus than a mainstay.

Iolanthe and Serene are the only plants for which Felix ever received external payment. We recall this because it was in our early married days when we were impoverished students. He gave the fee of a couple of hundred dollars to Mark. It was not the sort of event one ever forgets.
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First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Garden Lore

A garden is a delight to the eye, and a solace to the soul; it soothes angry passions, and produces that pleasure which is a foretaste of Paradise.

Gulistān (The Rose Garden) by Sa’ Di (1258)

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More on narcissi

It was a full month ago that I wrote about daffodils and showed those varieties that were in bloom at the time. In peak bloom, in fact. We had hosts of golden daffodils in flower. We still have. I headed out to gather samples of the varieties currently blooming.

In the vase on front left, we have the three showiest for this time of the season – the bright yellow cups of Narcissus bulbocodium, Narcissus ‘Beryl’ and a dainty little N. jonquilla species which, despite its diminutive size, packs a powerful perfume.

In the centre front vase is a named dwarf variety which we have lost the name of. Mark thought it might be Narcissus ‘Snipe’ (who calls a dainty daff ‘Snipe’?) but the clever internet shows me that the one on the right is more likely to be. The lemon one in the middle is Narcissus ‘Hawera’ which is not growing as strongly as some of the other varieties for us. On the right we have the last blooms of Narcissi x odorus, ‘Tete a Tete’ and ‘Twilight’ – all featured a month ago and only now finishing. These are ones I mentioned don’t set seed. This is why they have such a long flowering season.

In the vases at the back, they will be named varieties on the left but we don’t have their names any longer though one is probably ‘Thalia’. I quite like the white daffodils. To the right, the classic King Alfred type is at its peak for us.

If you love narcissi, you can extend the season past two months by growing a range of different varieties.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

At the stake

Mindful of how badly most of us stake plants, I have been looking at alternative strategies.
DelphiniumsDelphiniums are usually problematic. Rather than staking each flower spike individually, having a clump of them enables them to be retained invisibly. If natural fibre string is used for any ties required, the entire structure is fully biodegradable. This type of support is probably the most time consuming to construct. Whether it takes longer than to stake each flower stem individually, tying it with synthetic stretch tie to a plastic cane is debatable however.
the weaving approachAlstromerias are inclined to fall apart in our climate with rapid growth rates and often torrential downpours. Here the weaving approach has been used, adapted from its traditional use in rural fences and hedges. Stems of willow have been pushed into the ground at regular intervals and then bent and woven, side growths and all, at the desired height. If you are using a material like willow which can root easily, you need to either treat the ends (boiling water should do it if you are shunning herbicides) or keep an eye out for the support starting to grow.
natural alternative, tying bamboo lengthsIn this case, wire mesh has been laid at about 30cm above the ground to support the plant, a tall thalictrum, as it grows. While neither invisible nor attractive, the plant growth will fill out and hide it as the season progresses. If you want to try a natural alternative, tying bamboo lengths together in a grid will work. We have used a vertical bamboo grid to give an unobtrusive frame for a seasonal climbing plant – Tropaeoleum tricolorum.
environmentally friendlyIt depends on what visual effect you want in your garden, but the use of natural materials to create a seasonal growing frame is as efficient while more environmentally friendly than tanalised timber, plastic or metal. It is just not as permanent but this may not be a requirement for some gardeners, certainly when it comes to annual crops such as sweet peas. The natural alternative will usually age more gracefully.
005 - CopyWe make bamboo teepees here, but any longer stretch of branch can be used and there is charm in the irregularity of using natural materials. Solid branches will last longer than bamboo, maybe longer than cheap metal ones you may purchase. Depending on what you are trying to grow, it may not be necessary to weave the horizontal supports. A top tie may suffice. In most situations it will be necessary to push the long supports into the ground to prevent the structure being blown over.
hazel is the traditional English materialIf you have the space, coppicing plants is the traditional means of ensuring an ongoing supply of fresh, green wood. We are very impressed at the coppicing potential of michelias here. Others coppice cornus already and hazel is the traditional English material. However, most gardens will have some suitable material available for gathering – grapevine, bamboo, willow, phebalium, wisteria canes – the choices are many. The growth needs to be flexible for weaving, more rigid if it is to be pushed into the ground, twiggy if it is to form a natural support for bushy plants – one material will not fit all situations.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Garden Lore

“Interest in flower arranging has increased in spite of the war. This may be explained by the fact that woman, with her love of beauty, turns to creating it as a way of escape from the cruel knowledge that, every day, beauty is being destroyed.”

The New Zealand Gardener, Vol 1, Issue 1, September 1944.

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The New Zealand Gardener then and now

If you are not a regular reader of the New Zealand Gardener magazine, you may want to treat yourself to this month’s issue for nostalgia as much as the current content. It is the seventieth year of publication and to mark the occasion, the very first issue has been reprinted. Okay there is a bit of colour in it though I imagine the original was all black and white but it is both quaint and reassuring at the same time. The old fashioned courtesy and frugality is a reminder of times past. Honorifics are standard practice, with initials instead of christian names. Goodness, letters to the editor are to be paid at a rate of 5/-. By way of comparison, the purchase price of the magazine was only one shilling. That would make a modern letter worth $39.50, had the publisher continued with this largesse. A woman’s place is beyond doubt. It was of course during World War 2 that publication started in 1944 and that is a theme.

I used the word reassuring because quite a bit of the advice is still relevant today. Growing turnips, cape gooseberries or indeed delphiniums is not so very different now. If you are interested in the breakdown, there are seven pages on growing food crops and eight on “Science for the Gardener” (pests, disease, soil management and the like). The ornamental garden has nine pages and I particularly appreciated the column by ‘Silver Birch’ on the joys of importing rare bulbs. Not any longer with our border controls. Then “The Gardener’s Home” has eleven pages of recipes, advice and floral art. That section is by ‘Golden Willow’. Do we think she was married to ‘Silver Birch’?

The original issue comes as a free inclusion with the current September issue.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

The Cottage Garden

East Lambrook Manor House has sections dating back 600 years and a garden dating back to the late 1930s

East Lambrook Manor House has sections dating back 600 years and a garden dating back to the late 1930s

“We Made a Garden”, Margery Fish entitled her first gardening book in 1956. Her husband had died nine years previously which is perhaps why she was able to document the battles they had over their garden at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset. Margery won – not only in longevity but in the garden style that has earned her a place in history.

Cottage gardening. In this country there is a distinct shortage of cute cottages to act as the centrepiece but many people do not let that get in the way of attempting this style of informal gardening, founded on principles of mingling plants and allowing them to seed down. It is not as easy as it looks.

Cottage gardening is about combinations both deliberate and by chance – in this case a vetch and a broom.

Cottage gardening is about combinations both deliberate and by chance – in this case a vetch and a broom.

I was raised in a series of cottage gardens. It is what my mother did and that is not surprising, given that she started gardening in post WW2 Britain. It is a genre anchored in that time. WW1 saw a dramatic change from wealthy estates employing legions of gardening staff – they all disappeared off to fight and most either failed to return or did not return to the servitude of the estate system. But it was the second world war that saw the evolution of the DIY garden in a process of democratisation. Gardening was no longer the preserve of the landed gentry, nor confined to war time food production. The domestic garden came of age.

A yellow thistle relative – likely one of the centaurea family.

A yellow thistle relative – likely one of the centaurea family.

Margery Fish wanted an informal garden full of flowers all year round that she could maintain herself. She favoured simpler flowers which have a closer allegiance to wildflowers than to the Victorian vulgarity of bedding plants. To this day, her garden remains full of flowery froth and dominated by pastel colours. It has remained in private hands, with several different owners but these days it also has both staff (though few in number, I understand) and volunteers (greater numerically) to keep it as an historic garden open to the public.

The current owner likes yellow convertibles. This is a Morgan, though apparently reproduction.

The current owner likes yellow convertibles. This is a Morgan, though apparently reproduction.

Unexpectedly, the current owner was kind enough to give us a tour of the house, parts of which date back to the 14th century. The oppressive weight of responsibility that goes with owning an historic building weighed me down but it was certainly fascinating. And it was this house, seen as mellow and unpretentious, that motivated the style of garden Margery Fish pioneered in the surrounding two acres.

Convolvulus to the left, periwinkle to the right, plump marshmallow dog in the middle.

Convolvulus to the left, periwinkle to the right, plump marshmallow dog in the middle.

Looking at this and other examples, we discussed the fact that wildflowers and seeding down means something different overseas where plants are often native. Too many become invasive weeds here.

It is not too difficult to create a lovely cottage garden that looks great for three weeks of the year. I have done it, as will have many readers. It is how you keep it equally good for the other 49 weeks that is difficult. A good cottage garden does not have bare patches. It treads a fine line between free form and relaxed maintenance while not permitting weeds to spiral out of control. Plant thugs are restrained or removed before they become a major problem and choke out the more modest growing companions.

Santolinas are a cottage garden standard. There is one selected by Margery Fish named ‘Lambrook Silver’, though whether this is it, I do not know.

Santolinas are a cottage garden standard. There is one selected by Margery Fish named ‘Lambrook Silver’, though whether this is it, I do not know.

It is never all self-seeded – that is meadow style. In a good cottage garden, considerable thought and effort will go into managing plant combinations, creating contrast and harmony with foliage, not just flowers. Even knowing what to weed out and when to trim takes experience. There is usually some underpinning structure to give form – whether in modest hard landscaping or permanent shrubs. The clipped “pudding trees” (just Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) and a bit of hedging are used at Lambrook for this purpose.

The mistake is to tackle this type of gardening under the illusion that it is low maintenance and it does not require much skill, let alone plant knowledge. It is only a year that separates a pretty cottage garden from an out of control weedy wilderness in our climate.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.