The October Garden

The glory of the sino nuttallii rhododendrons

The glory of the sino nuttallii rhododendrons

Floral Legacy in bud

Floral Legacy in bud

Rhododendons may no longer be the elite fashion item they were for so many decades, but we still love them.

When we started in the plant business back in the early 80s, rhododendrons were a hot ticket item. We were but one of several rhododendron nurseries in Taranaki and to survive, we needed to find our own niche. To this end, we grew a different range, specialising in varieties that would perform well in warmer climates – like Auckland. After all, even back then, one in four New Zealanders lived in greater Auckland and we figured that if we were going to sell them rhododendrons, we might as well sell them ones that would do better for them. Mark’s father just happened to have done some breeding to find varieties that were more resistant to thrips, didn’t get that burned and crispy edging to their foliage and were predominantly fragrant as well as floriferous. It gave us a good place to start.

Nowadays there are no specialist rhododendron growers in Taranaki at all and the demand has melted away. I no longer have to try and convince people that not all rhododendrons have a big full truss in the shape of a ball but many have loose trumpets in curtains of bloom instead.

Rhododendrons are one of the backbones of our garden and we wouldn’t have it any other way. While they have a relatively short season in full bloom, the anticipation of fattening buds stretches out the weeks with the promise of delights to come. They are as fine a shrub as any we grow here and a great deal more spectacular than most.

The nuttalliis! Oh the nuttalliis!

The nuttalliis! Oh the nuttalliis!

The nuttalliis. Oh the nuttalliis. Peak nuttallii season doesn’t start until closer to the end of the month, taking us into November but some varieties have already done their dash for this year. If we could grow only one type of rhododendron, we’d choose a nuttallii and even more specifically, the sino nuttallii from China. You can keep your big red rhodos (most people’s favourite pick). We love the fragrant, long, white trumpets which look as if they are made from waxed fabric, the lovely peeling bark and the heavy textured foliage. These are rarely offered commercially now so grab one if you ever find it for sale.



It is, by the way, nasty little leaf-sucking thrips that turn foliage silver and no, you can never turn those silver leaves green again. If you look at the underside of the leaf, you can see dark thread-like marks – these are the critters that do the damage. All you can do is to try and prevent the new season’s growth from getting similarly infested. We are not at all keen on spraying insecticide these days and you need a systemic insecticide that the plant absorbs into its system to get a thorough kill. If you must go down this path, spray in mid November, early January and late February for maximum effect. Others praise Neem oil instead but we haven’t tried it.

We favour choosing more thrip-resistant varieties, keeping them growing strongly and opening up around them to let more air and light in. Thrips prefer shade and shelter. Unless it is really
special, if it is badly thrip-prone, we replace it with a better variety. Not every plant is precious.

In the longer term, plants come and go in the fashion stakes. Goodness, even red hot pokers are having a resurgence of popularity. We don’t worry about the fashion status of the rhododendron and Mark continues hybridising for better performing cultivars. If there is no commercial market for the results, it doesn’t matter. We will continue to enjoy them in our own garden.

First published in the New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Rhododendron Barbara Jury - one of Felix's  hybrids

Rhododendron Barbara Jury – one of Felix’s hybrids

The Romantic Garden (part 1)

Good bones help but the contrast of plants and the simplicity of the daisies would work even without the hall in the background.

Good bones help but the contrast of plants and the simplicity of the daisies would work even without the hall in the background.

We have been talking about romantic gardens here. Not that commercially packaged ‘romantic’ imagery of twilight, candles, a bottle of wine and two glasses. No, we are looking back to the European Romantic period from the late 18th century onwards blended with what is often called naturalistic and gardenesque styles of gardening, but in the 21st century.

The gentle, at times sentimental soft focus of ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett has stayed with many of us all our lives. It was something of an anticlimax to me when I finally discovered that the history of those walled gardens in Britain has rather more to do with growing fruit and vegetables than roses. So too have I never forgotten the image of Elnora Comstock in ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’ though I admit I mentally had her in an arbour, not beneath a willow tree*.

Gresgarth offered many small pictures of subtle detail.

Gresgarth offered many small pictures of subtle detail.

How does this translate to gardening? Forget the twee, the naff, the contrived sentimentality. That is romantic gardening in the hands of the wannabe. It started to fall into place for us when we visited Arabella Lennox Boyd’s garden called Gresgarth in Lancashire, north west England. The pictures today tell the story. It was wildly romantic though not, I would guess as a deliberate contrivance. Lady Lennox Boyd is renowned as both a highly skilled garden designer and a plantswoman. This is her private garden and a reflection of her personal tastes. Unfortunately she was away the day we visited. We would have liked to have met her because we loved her garden.

It was not a show garden designed to impress. We have seen enough of those to pick them instantly. This was a garden with soul, underpinned by a very deft hand and eye. There were many detailed little pictures as well as the grand views, a marriage of formality and informality with areas of gentle abandon. It was a garden which served multiple purposes including supplying the house with produce and replenishing the soul. It wasn’t perfect. There were a few areas which were certainly not above criticism. In short, it was a garden to be lived in.

It wasn’t until later that we came to the conclusion that the best descriptor was “romantic”. This was despite the coach load of visitors and others who were there at the same time. I can tell you that garden coach loads do not vary a great deal whether they are in New Zealand or overseas. There is a certain herd tendency to tour groups. But even their intrusive presence did not detract from our enjoyment.

I think it was the gardener’s cottage in days gone by, located in the walled garden.

I think it was the gardener’s cottage in days gone by, located in the walled garden.

Gresgarth gave us a reference point as a romantic garden. Even if the handsome residence and the old stone and brickwork were stripped out, it would still retain that sense of romance because it lay in the garden, not primarily in the wider architectural or landscape context. Though it certainly makes life easier if you start with some good bones, as they say.

Romantic gardening is pretty much at the far end of the spectrum from hard-edged contemporary garden design with shiny stainless steel, matt black and sharp white structures and plants selected solely as soft furnishings. It is also well away from austere, classically derived formality although it may have some formal elements.

It wasn’t all pastel and white at Gresgarth.

It wasn’t all pastel and white at Gresgarth.

What else defines it other than that distinctly nebulous and subjective description of having ‘soul’? We are still unravelling this here but romantic gardening brings together a number of threads we have been discussing in recent years – sustainability, support for natural ecosystems, better environmental practices in gardening, a respect for nature which involves a cooperative relationship, some level of prettiness, often a celebration of simplicity rather than grandeur. None of this is a surprise when you consider that the Romantic era originated as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the elevation of science and reason above nature.

Maybe it is time for Neo-Romanticism or maybe the Romantic Revival as a response to the elevation of economics and self interest above nature and community? Only time will tell.

* “One afternoon early in July, Ammon came across the fields. He inquired for Elnora at the back door and was told she was reading under the willow. He went around the west end of the cabin to her. She sat on a rustic bench they had made and placed beneath a drooping branch. Ammon had not seen her before in the dress she was wearing. It was clinging mull of pale green trimmed with narrow ruffles and touched with knots of black velvet; a simple dress but vastly becoming.”

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter (1909)

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

Garden Lore: Friday 17 October, 2014

The red cubes are evergreen azaleasLook! The red cubes are evergreen azaleas. We were driving along and I made Mark stop the car so I could photograph this border from the street because it was eye catching. The azaleas appear to be all the same variety. Each rhododendron in between is a different variety. We decided that what lifted this border above the usual alternating planting – which I have been known to refer as the vaudeville or circus tent look – is the fact that it utilises formality without slavishly trying to make all the plants look identical. Each red cube is actually a different size.

One of the problems of strictly formal plantings is that the symmetry is ruined if a plant fails to thrive or dies. This is a common problem because plants are living organisms and may not conform to your requirement that they obediently stay identical to their neighbours. Here is a practical solution to that conundrum, giving structure, form and unity by overall impression, rather than exact detail. When not flowering, the azaleas will just be green cubes instead. Should one die, it will not ruin the entire length of the border if it is replaced with a younger, smaller plant.

I am not so keen on the sharp contrast of the white fence at the front, but that is entirely personal taste. Notice how the dark fence behind the border makes it recede into the distance rather than drawing attention to the straight lines of the boundary with the neighbour.

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

The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury

58195Despite the subtitle, An Illustrated History, this handsome book is more for the coffee table than a library reference. The selection of trees – and there are about 100 different tree species, each given at least a double page spread, sometimes more – is a little too random and eclectic to make this useful as a reference book. It is more testimony to a love affair than a work of scholarship.

The entries are put into six categories – antiquity (trees with very long histories including gingko and magnolia), ecology (such as the swamp cypress or Taxodium distichum), sacred, utility, food and ornament. Sometimes the tree species is generalised. The Japanese cherry is described as ‘Prunus x yedoensis and related varieties’ which is pretty broad. Yet the magnolia entry is limited to just one species, M. sprengeri. I was perhaps a little surprised to see the jacaranda missing from the section on ornamental trees given the international focus. But any selection is going to be arbitrary when the world of trees is to be narrowed down to 100.

The photography is beautiful at first glance, with many full page spreads. Some are magnificent images but not all. At times the field of focus is not sharp throughout. The selection of image is sometimes more about looking good than being helpful. The carob tree, for example, has a full page shot of a carob bean only which is in sharp focus on the bean itself but blurred top and bottom. The appearance of the tree itself remains a mystery.

The text is engaging and filled with some wonderfully random, fascinating pieces of information. While one can be picky (well, I can be picky I admit), in the context of a handsome coffee table book, it is unreasonable to expect the rigour of a work of scholarship. In terms of an interesting and rewarding browsing experience, it delivers well.

The high quality, large format, hard-covered coffee table garden book has all but disappeared in this country so it will come as no surprise that this is an English production. In fact, Mark met the author briefly when we were over there last June.

The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury, photography by Andrea Jones. (Frances Lincoln; ISBN: 9780711235809).

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

Stepping up and stepping down

floating or suspended stepsThe floating or suspended steps with no visible support structure are a common feature in modern interior architecture where a lighter look is desirable. I can’t recall seeing them used in a garden before and, to be honest, I am not sure they add a great deal to this particular scene. But I did photograph it in a place with a large budget where the owners and designer could clearly afford such attention to detail.

Wide steps, beautifully constructed, link two different levels of the same garden (Mount St John in Yorkshire). It is the generous width of the steps and the gradient which make this look more graceful than the inset photograph from Scampston. The gradient is sufficiently gradual to enable the use of a lawnmower alongside and to avoid the need for the decidedly utility hand rails which detract from the other steps.
003These are the classic steps which are attributed to the great architect Edwin Lutyens during the time of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of last century. A central circle has inwardly curved steps on the upper side and outwardly curved steps leading downwards. Good design does not date. Good construction also lasts the distance.
???????????????????????????????These steps have the outward curve only, but I chose them because they are an example of dry climate steps. The narrow strips on the treads are actually terracotta tiles placed on their sides. The look is detailed and attractive although I imagine it would be expensive to do here Both clay brick and terracotta will become moss-covered and very slippery in damper climates like ours. Note the care and precision in construction.
???????????????????????????????Not every set of steps is going to be a precisely engineered work. These were clearly DIY, although access to flat slabs of stone for the treads gives the impression of permanent quality. Look at the risers – some are local round stones held together with cement. In the absence of suitable stone slabs, check out the modern concrete pavers on offer. These can be cut to size and the finish can be good enough to deceive most eyes.
???????????????????????????????No matter what material you choose to construct your steps, there are well established guidelines for measurements. For comfort, the gradient is less than internal house stairs. Step risers should not be more than 15cm high and the corresponding step tread around 30cm from front to back. There is plenty of information on proportions that work best. Generously wide steps usually look more gracious than tight, narrow steps where space allows.

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

Plant Collector: Kerria japonica “Pleniflora”

Kerria japonica 'Pleniflora'

Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’

I hadn’t registered the kerria until we went to see the bluebells at Te Popo Gardens and there, lo and behold, it was impossible to ignore. The double form looked somewhat like a bright gold, thornless banksia rose. I wasn’t quite so keen on the single form which is a bit like a giant buttercup flower but others may like the simplicity. On a gloomy early spring morning, the kerria were like rays of gold.

This is a deciduous, clumping Chinese shrub which will spread by putting out suckers. It flowers just at the point when the leaves start to emerge. It is not a plant with strong form or shape, being more a thicket of arching canes. When not flowering, it is one of those anonymous plants that does nothing to attract attention to itself. It benefits from being pruned (thinned, really) once a year because the flowers come on the newest canes. Treat it like a raspberry, in other words.

The real boon is that kerrias are not fussy and they will grow and flower in shade – full shade, even. It is no surprise that the Japanese have always liked them. An arching spray of golden flowers is a wonderful statement of both simplicity and cheer.

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

Japanese simplicity


“I have come to understand the unspeakable loveliness of a solitary spray of blossoms arranged as only a Japanese expert knows how to arrange it…and therefore I cannot think now of what we Occidentals call a ‘bouquet’ as anything but a vulgar murdering of flowers, an outrage upon the color-sense, a brutality, an abomination.”

Glimpses of Unfamilar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn (1894)