Pink & white parade

April is the cruellest month, wrote T.S. Eliot in his famous poem, The Waste Land. Not, I have to say, out of fear of late frosts in a northern hemisphere spring, as one gardening wit thought. Here, it is July that brings us the bleakest days of winter.

But as July progresses, it also heralds the start of a new gardening year. Magnolias and snowdrops mark the passing of winter into spring.

Magnolia campbellii

Magnolia campbellii

The first deciduous magnolia of the season to open is always M. campbellii. There is an attractive group of them in New Plymouth on Powderham Street and the first flowers on those appear in late June, sometimes before all the leaves have fallen. Asphalt and concrete in cities raise temperatures enough to trigger flowering earlier than in country areas. M. campbellii is not a great option in colder parts of the country because frosts can take the early blooms out but where space and climate allow, it is beautiful. Our tree was considerably larger until a falling Lombardy poplar took out half of it, but it is staging a comeback. There is a white form too, but the pink is generally regarded as superior.

Magnolia Vulcan

Magnolia Vulcan

July also sees the first blooms opening on Magnolias ‘Lanarth’ and ‘Vulcan’. The latter was bred here by my late father in law, Felix Jury, and marked the first of the new generation red-toned magnolias. For several years after we first released it, we used to be able to track it flowering down the country by the phone enquiries. It opens in Northland much earlier than it shows colour in Otago and Southland.

Magnolia Lanarth

Magnolia Lanarth

Lanarth (technically M. campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’) remains the best purple available, in our opinion, even though its flowering season is brief because it only sets flower buds on the tips and they all bloom at once, rather than in sequence down the stems. It is worth having in a large garden because it will take your breath away for two or three weeks in late July and early August but smaller gardens probably need trees with a longer season.

Galanthus  S. Arnott

Galanthus S. Arnott

At the other end of the scale, we find snowdrops enchanting. We have tried growing a wide range of different species but in the end it is Galanthus nivalus ‘S. Arnott’ that is happiest here in the mid north, although we also get a good run from the larger leafed G. elwesii. Gardeners in cooler, southern areas will have a bigger selection to choose from but we have to go with what performs here.

Snowdrops are one of the few bulbs where the standard advice is to lift and divide in full growth – usually straight after flowering although there is no reason why you can’t do it when they are dormant. They multiply satisfyingly well and we are on a mission to spread these charmers in huge swathes throughout the garden.
What northerners often call snowdrops are not. They are leucojums, commonly called snowflakes. Proper snowdrops are much smaller and prettier. They have a central cup surrounded by three longer petals that look like dainty wings. Leucojums, on the other hand, just have the cup as a bloom and are much stronger growing with plenty of foliage that looks like daffodil leaves. You often see them growing in paddocks around old farmhouses. Some of the bigger flowered selections make good garden plants (Leucojum vernum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is the one we use), because they have a much longer flowering season than galanthus. But they lack the dainty refinement of the proper snowdrop. There can be little doubt about that.

First publshed in the New Zealand Gardener July issue and reprinted here with their permission.

Edging garden borders

We have been looking at English summer gardens for the last few weeks. In my quest to offer alternatives to edging plants and tidy little hedges delineating garden beds, I collected some examples.

Beth Chatto’s dry garden in Essex

1) Beth Chatto’s dry garden in Essex was groundbreaking in its day and is still a remarkable place to visit. Here the same honey-coloured gravel has been used both for paths and as garden mulch, blurring the transition between garden bed and access ways. There are no straight lines anywhere and the effect is relaxed, soft and inviting.

The grass garden at Bury Court in Hampshire

2) The grass garden at Bury Court in Hampshire was hard-edged, contemporary design. We did not expect to like it but were won over by the movement and texture. The contrast between geometric design and the wayward growth and sway of the tall grasses and perennials gives dynamic tension. The hard edged, rectilinear constraints have been achieved using rusted metal, coarse stone chip and fine gravel, put together with considerable precision.

Also at Bury Court, the flower gardens

3) Also at Bury Court, the flower gardens were defined simply with a sharply cut edge where garden beds met lawns. You can do this with a spade if you lack the requisite edging tool but you need to make sure you are not shaving a little more off the lawn every time. I speak from experience on this. One day you may look and realise the lawn has shrunk.

Gresgarth Hall in Lancashire

4) Gresgarth Hall in Lancashire had purpose-built miniature hurdles to restrain wayward plants. These are only about 25 to 30cm high, as you may realise looking at the catmint (nepeta) behind. We saw variations on this theme but the rule of thumb is that if you craft them a little, rather than using tanalised timber offcuts, they will look more discreet and natural. Their purpose here is to stop the plant from flopping outwards onto the lawn, leaving a hole in the border while smothering the grass.

stack of woven screens

5) Also at Gresgarth, we saw stack of woven screens of a similar size to be used as plant restrainers. Rather than following the oft-repeated advice to spend cold winter days cleaning and sharpening your garden tools, you may like to try your hand at weaving little screens for summer use. Hazel is the most common UK material but you can use any flexible prunings including grapevines, michelia, willow or birch.


6) Froth! If you have a voluptuous planting, paving up to the garden allows the plant to cascade over the edging. This softens hard lines, gives room to the plants and is altogether more relaxed and romantic than straitjacketing the garden borders into rigid lines. This is at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society. Their main twin herbaceous borders have wide pavers laid either side with a wide grass lawn down the centre. It gives a softer effect than paved right across as shown here.

For earlier thoughts on this topic, check Begone edging plants!

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

Garden Lore

By the time one is eighty, it is said there is no longer a tug of war in the garden with the May flowers hauling like mad against the claims of the other months. All is at last in balance and all is serene. The gardener is usually dead, of course.

Henry Mitchell The Essential Earthman (1981)

black gardens. Yes, black.

Black gardens. Yes, black.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like to do a black garden as counterpoint to the many re-creations throughout the world of the famous Sissinghurst white garden, I found you an example. This is one of a couple of “black” garden rooms at the Musée des Impressionnismes in Giverny.

Hmmm. There was no black mondo grass which would be the usual starting point for a black garden here but it illustrates the problem that there are very few all black plants. What you are likely to end up with is a sombre deep burgundy garden which is very flat in colour, brown-toned, even. The centrepiece here is Sambucus nigra or the cut-leafed dark elderberry which can look effective in some settings, if a little like the poor man’s maple. Clearly the dark ajuga groundcover is doing well but none of this is black. At the rear, you can see a quandary. The freshly planted pansies have flowers that are indubitably noir, but is the green foliage acceptable? Elsewhere were very dark foliaged plants sporting bright orange or red blooms. Should one cut the flowering stems off in the quest for purity of vision?

A black garden is perhaps best described as a novelty garden, better in concept than execution as most experienced gardeners will realise if they think through the plant options.

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

Westward ho!

I am somewhat late in posting this first of a new series – month by month in the garden here, as printed in the June issue of NZ Gardener. This issue heralded some innovative changes in content for this magazine. If you haven’t looked at a copy recently, you may like to pick up a new issue.
???????????????????????????????There is nothing like the advent of the winter months to remind us that our climate is pretty good. Where we garden, on the coastal strip of Taranaki, we share the same disturbed westerly air pattern that moderates the climate of much of the west of New Zealand. It means we don’t get particularly cold and occasional frosts are generally light. We don’t put our gardens to bed for winter and retreat indoors. In fact we have colour and bloom all twelve months of the year and June is one of our busy months for planting trees, shrubs and perennials.

Not much shouts mild climate more than bromeliads and luculia flowering as winter sets in. True, we place our tender material with a bit of shelter from trees and these are only options for coastal gardens this far south, but bromeliads in bloom are a special touch of exotica when you have to start wearing extra clothing layers. Just don’t be like the cantankerous garden visitor who sniffed, “Oh I hate bromeliads, they looks so artificial.” “Well you won’t like this bit of the garden,” I replied and left her to it.

Luculia Fragrant Pearl

Luculia Fragrant Pearl

I love luculias, though not so much the form most readily available, Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’. I find the candy pink a little harsh and it is not as fragrant as the L. pinceana forms. ‘Fragrant Cloud’ has huge heads and wonderful scent with subtler almond pink and white colouring. ‘Fragrant Pearl’ is a white pinceana selection we released but it appears to have dropped off the market now which is a pity because it is very good, with large blooms, strong perfume and a long flowering season. If you have a home propagation set-up, ideally with a bit of mist, luculias are not difficult to root from cutting. We used to try and get the cuttings in around Christmas but you can probably do it any time the fresh season’s growth has hardened sufficiently.

The trade-off for our milder winters is that we don’t get the sharp change in temperature that is an important trigger for glorious autumn colour. Plants that colour up well in colder, inland areas often just turn brown and drop their leaves here so we have to celebrate those that do give us small pictures of autumn glory. The Japanese maples are reliable and hang on to their blaze of colour well into winter. We will prune and shape our dwarf specimens (often sold as ‘patio maples’) once their leaves drop.

The autumn flowering sasanqua camellias are passing over but many of the species are in bloom and the early japonicas and hybrids are starting. Every year I fall in love with these early season blooms all over again. The love wanes somewhat when petal blight strikes, but the pristine purity of the first flowers is special.

June is one of the quieter months for bulbs. Nerine bowdenii is the last of that family to flower for us and takes us well into winter while Cyclamen coum forms carpets beneath larger shrubs. Mind you, it takes many years to get enough to form carpets and they won’t seed down if you garden with weed killer. July is the big month for the start of winter and early spring bulbs.

???????????????????????????????We are off to England to look at summer gardens this month. There is much to learn from their skills with summer flowering perennials and we particularly want to look more closely at what is now called the New Perennials Movement (which might be styled ‘meadow gardening and grasses meet traditional herbaceous drifts’). We have to squash any such trips in before the glory of the magnolia season starts here next month.

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

Plant Collector: Fuchsia boliviana

Rewarding but a weed here - Fuchsia boliviana

Rewarding but a weed here – Fuchsia boliviana

“You can’t write that up,” Mark protested when he saw me photographing this plant. “It’s a weed.” This may be the first Plant Uncollector. We have had the plant for several years but it has never made it out of the nursery, being left to its own devices in the somewhat wild area of plants waiting to be put in the garden but not urgent. There it has seeded down freely and it won’t be going out to the garden because we can see it has serious weed potential. This is a shame because it flowers pretty much all the time and the hanging clusters are showy, while the foliage is velvety to touch. Our neglected parent plant is about 3m high and a somewhat rangy shrub but it can get bigger.

This is a variable species. There are red and pink, even and pure white forms. It is South American – not just Bolivia but also southern Peru and northern Argentina so presumably parts of Chile too. It is highly prized internationally but it will be somewhat frost tender which may curb its escaping tendencies in colder climates. We have enough imported weeds in this country. Just because it is attractive and has rewarding blooming habits is not a good enough reason to knowingly unleash another weed. This plant, along with its multitude of seedlings, is destined for the mulcher and compost. The seeds are spread by birds and because the plant can establish in heavy shade, it has a wide habitat. It is on the National Pest Plant Accord so can’t be sold legally but we arrived at the conclusion of its weed pest potential all of our own accord. If there is ever a sterile version of this plant released, we would welcome it but until then, no.

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

A retirement garden from scratch

The garden owners know exactly what they like and how they want their new garden to look

The garden owners know exactly what they like and how they want their new garden to look

Every time I drive to town, I pass a large new garden that was started from scratch late last year. The owners are usually outside, beavering away. Curiosity overcame me and I had to stop and chat.

Ann and Maurice did not want to be identified beyond their christian names and that is fine because what interested me was to find out how they decided where to start with their blank canvas. There was just some perimeter hedging and a new house at one end of the plot when they started. It is a large section – a full acre they told me – and this is their retirement garden.

Both came from larger gardens, considerably larger in their earlier days, so the prospect of an acre held no fears for them, but the fact that it is pretty much dead flat was important. There are good reasons why most people retire to the flat in later years – gardeners’ knees for one.

I asked them how they decided where to start and the response was completely matter of fact and decisive. They wanted a garden that was fully visible from the house. There was to be no slow reveal or secret garden to be discovered. In a modern house designed for indoor-outdoor flow, they wanted to be able to survey their garden in its entirety from the living areas. There is no right or wrong way on this. It is entirely a matter of personal taste and they know what they like. The result is a large expanse of central lawn surrounded by garden borders on the perimeter.

All the garden borders are curved, serpentine even. Ann was equally decisive on this design decision. She does not like straight lines in gardens and regards them as boring. Again this is a matter of personal taste and design choice. There is no correct or incorrect way.

Where their gardening experience showed was in the generous width of the perimeter borders. Irrespective of whether your edgings are railroad straight or gently curving, one of the most common design mistakes is to make borders too narrow. In a large space, narrow borders can look mean, out of proportion to the scale of the garden. But even in a small space, it is very difficult to work with narrow borders. Plants grow – often much larger than expected and few novices can envisage the amount of space trees and shrubs will take up once established.

Scatter pavers in the middle of wide borders to give somewhere to stand when tending to the sections that can't be reached from the side (this one in my garden)

Scatter pavers in the middle of wide borders to give somewhere to stand when tending to the sections that can’t be reached from the side (this one in my garden)

We have been dogged by garden borders that Mark’s parents put in back in the 1950s, which ended up being too narrow. It is not easy to widen borders retrospectively when they have permanent concrete or stone edgings in place. We have done it to several, but getting it right from the start saves bother. Never less than two metres in width would be my rule of thumb, wider where possible. Maybe consider having fewer, wider borders if the amount of garden is scary. Scatter a few pavers in the wider expanse of the border if you don’t want to stand on the soil so that you can tend to the central area that is out of reach.

Ann and Maurice are planning their garden from the start so that they will be able to maintain it as they age. It is, after all, their retirement project. All borders have been edged with a wide concrete mowing strip, hand mixed and poured by Maurice. This gives definition to the borders and makes mowing easy. There are no island beds to circumnavigate. The lawn is uninterrupted. Maurice has given considerable attention to the lawn and they have not shied away from spending money on getting it right from the start. The level is consistent and flush to the mowing strips. It is a large area but dead flat and easy to mow with a ride-on – an important factor in longer term planning.

While the new border plantings include both perennials and annuals, the long term emphasis is on the trees and shrubs. Over time, these will grow and mature, providing a low maintenance backdrop for when hand weeding and kneeling become onerous. “It will be easy,” they explained. “All that will need to be done to keep the place looking good is to mow the lawns.”

Ann and Maurice were keeping their intensively gardened areas close to the house - very close for these areas under cover

Ann and Maurice were keeping their intensively gardened areas close to the house – very close for these areas under cover

Detailed gardens have been kept very close to the house with particular emphasis on the new conservatory which sports a permanent garden.

It is difficult to imagine a time when these two will not be out in their garden. They know what they like, they know what they want and they have made plans for it to see them into the future. No matter whether one’s personal tastes and preferences differ, there is a magnificence in such confident enthusiasm backed up by hard work.

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

Garden Lore

Decorum is the refinement of propriety. It is in order to procure stable-dung for hot-beds; it is proper to do this at all times when it is wanted, but it is decorous to have the work performed early in the morning, that the putrescent vapours and dropping litter may not prove offensive to the master of the garden, should he, or any of his family or friends, visit the scene.

John Claudius Loudon Encyclopedia of Gardening (1822)

Urban paving
Urban paving

How to cope with the escalating demand for off street parking is a major urban issue. The severe flooding that assails the United Kingdom with ever-increasing regularity has in part been attributed to the problems of urbanisation and increasing run-off. Water has to go somewhere and if it cannot be absorbed into the ground because of concrete and tarmac, it will either pond, flood or flow until it finds somewhere to go. Urban stormwater systems are not built to drain all the water away, merely the excess water.

There are commercial products designed to give a firm base for car parking while still allowing drainage and ground absorption. Laid properly, the area can still be mowed or raked. Even sealed areas need maintenance, whether by sweeping or the use of a leaf blower. This midway position is a much sounder option environmentally, as well as being softer to the eye than expanses of seal.

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