More than fifty shades of grey

I find it difficult to believe that flat planes of grey ever lift anybody’s spirits

I have been looking at carpets and truly, there is an endless choice as long as you want grey. Real estate grey, somebody commented when I posted my piece about colour in southern Italy. We had this idealistic thought that we would only buy wool which gave a choice of one blue and one green, given we have ruled out grey and shades of porridge and mud. For variation, I added another three samples of blue, green and muted aubergine in one of the new fibres which is, apparently, corn sugar mixed with synthetic but not actually nylon.

I have a theory now on New Zealand’s obsession with real estate grey both indoors and out. Colour fashions change over time. We know this. Some of us are old enough to remember the turquoise, ginger, oranges and purples of the late seventies. It was not the country’s subtlest moment in home décor. The eighties brought the muted shades of Paris pink, sage green, burgundy and dove grey.

So how did we get to plain grey?

We have always been an itinerant nation, moving house often. I found a story from 2008 which started, ‘More than a quarter of New Zealanders have moved at least once in the past two years, a survey reveals.’  It is likely to have accelerated since then, given the decline in our previously high home ownership rates. But at some point in the last decade or maybe longer, houses stopped being first and foremost homes and instead became investments. When a house becomes an investment, resale value assumes huge importance. And the real estate industry assures us that for a quick sale at maximum price, houses must be neutral and anonymous. Grey and white or maybe off-white with accent colour in sofa cushions.

Mark and I had a passing conversation about a real estate garden to accompany a real estate grey house. We didn’t get off colour theming and the thing about grey plants is that they are more often silver, with a lustrous sheen and qualities of light and shade that are missing from flat planes of utility grey. We figured that a real estate garden is simply the ultimate in tidy utilitarianism. In this day and age, it will probably be filled with dwarf nandinas.

For those of you who are curious, we are not happy with the quality of the 100% wool carpets on offer so will probably go with the muted aubergine option from corn sugar (or is it corn husk?). Mark feels that green carpet is better downstairs where it anchors the house to the green outdoors whereas he feels blue upstairs links to the sky. I was not so keen on the blue carpet and my heart lies with flat planes of muted colour. I have never forgotten our first trip to Northern Italy. It was a magnolia trip so early spring and the quality of light in the north was soft and almost ethereal. None of the harsh brightness further south. We visited an old church and inside was colour – faded colour but in hues of soft yellows, blues, pinks, greens and pale terracotta. I fell in love with that colour and in our home which is ‘1950 character’, as we say, that effect of faded or muted colour in sweeping expanses seems to fit us well.  So the upstairs of our house is on track to be in Northern Italian faded church colours of muted pinks, pastel blue greens, aubergine and soft yellow – all colour and texture with next to no pattern. But then we are not intending to sell our house so we do not feel that it will cost us money if we go for what we like and not resale grey and white. Our colour can just gently fade with us as we age.

When all is said and done, if you strip the colour from a monarch butterfly, all you are left with is an over-sized cabbage white with pretensions.


Summer gardens – the starting point

I garden so I have a lot of thinking time. And it struck me this week that the reason why good summer gardens are a rare occurrence in this country is because most New Zealanders start a garden by planting out the trees and shrubs, then the hedgings and edgings.  Herbaceous underplanting is more of an afterthought, not unlike adding cushions to a sofa. A filling in of remaining spaces.

If you want a good summer garden, start with the herbaceous planting and build from there. That was my moment of clarity.

New Zealand does great spring gardens. Magnolias, flowering cherries and crab-apples, soft foliaged Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons and a host of other pretty trees and shrubs grow with a lushness and froth of bloom. You would be hard pressed to find prettier spring gardens and that takes in the length of the country.

Le Jardin Plume in Normandy

Northern New Zealand also does year-round, sub-tropical gardens very well. All the lush greenery of palms, cycads, bamboos and some lesser known small tropical trees with many ferns, clivias and bromeliads – albeit often sustained by irrigation or misting units over the hotter summer months.

Good summer gardens are a scarce event in this country and I think it is because we start with the trees and shrubs. There aren’t that many woody plants that flower in summer. Hydrangeas and jacaranda do but even so-called repeat-flowering roses peak in spring and then rather stagger on from there without ever achieving that mass, new season glory again. There is a very limited selection if you want summer-flowering woody plants.

New Zealanders generally want gardens that ‘have interest’ all year round. Some gardens boast of being a garden for all seasons when in practice they are spring gardens with spots of bloom and colour at other times.

Summer at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Classic twin herbaceous borders at RHS Wisley Gardens

I have seen impressive summer herbaceous plantings at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens but those are large-scale, public plantings which are different to home gardens. They are probably worth a visit right now if you are in the area. I have also seen a fair number of classic, twin herbaceous borders, but mostly overseas. They are more commonly classic twin mixed borders in New Zealand, where the shrubs will dominate over time. It is not the herbaceous borders that have made me do a double take of envy. It is the more contemporary herbaceous plantings with fewer rules, considerably less maintenance but more colour control that inspired both of us. We won’t know if we have succeeded here for another year or two and then the proof of sustainability is if it still looks good a decade later, but I am optimistic at the early results.

Bury Court – superb planting combinations by Piet Oudolf

More Bury Court

So far, I can say that a good summer garden needs full sun with open conditions. My plantings started with the herbaceous plants and bulbs. These are plants that like well cultivated soil so it is easy for them to spread their roots. There are some trees and shrubs, but mostly used to give definition and form to the area without intruding into the herbaceous plantings and without the potential to cast shade where shade is not wanted. It is a very different style of planting and management to the rest of the garden. Once the principles and techniques are mastered, the fun comes with plant combinations.  Our conditions are so different that we need to trial plant material and work out our own combinations rather than working from overseas plant lists and examples. But we have learned from looking at some highly skilled combinations and the difference between cobbling together plants based primarily on flower colour and the genuine flair of knowledgeable gardeners is noticeable once you get your eye in. It is the detail that is possible in private gardens that often makes a huge difference.

Wildside in Devon

That is what we have travelled overseas to look at and to reinterpret for our conditions at home.

Our blank canvas three years ago with just the foundation shrubs and trees to define what will remain open space

We be diggers here.

Rain after the drought

It is raining here which is a relief, for once. North Taranaki, where we live, is not known for droughts so over two months without significant rain was heading to critical territory. Mark was worrying about fire potential because we have chosen to leave grazing pasture long and also in the meadow with all its very dry material. Taranaki is better known for flooding than fire.

We have been lucky to have fairly gentle rain to soften the ground first. The problem with drought-hardened ground is that torrential rain just flows across it like a sheet of water, without being absorbed. It has been interesting looking at the absorption of the rain so far. Where the ground is compacted, yesterday’s rain had only soaked the top centimetre or so. But the areas of garden that are extremely well cultivated and friable have absorbed the water right down.

We are diggers here and still like to work the soil. I have always been a bit suspicious that the current craze for no-dig gardening might have more to do with people not wanting to exert themselves on the end of a spade or shovel. I am particularly dubious about those who use the death toll of worms cut by the spade as an excuse not to dig when all the while, they will sit down to a dinner of tasty steak. Chances are that it was more traumatic for the beef beast, lamb, pig or even chicken to be brought to the dining table than for the occasional worm that had its tail cut off or met its end for the digging of the garden.

The other reason I often read is that digging should be avoided because it ‘destroys the structure of the soil’. Certainly you don’t want to be bringing the substrata and clay layers to the top, but you can dig without doing that.

Rotary hoeing one of the new borders to break up heavily compacted ground

Mark has always dug his vegetable gardens, on the principle that vegetables need to be able to get their roots out as easily and quickly as possible in order to grow well. We have applied the same principle to the new gardens we are making. They are on ground that had been heavily compacted over the years, covered by weed mat and nursery plants for about three decades with every centimetre tramped over repeatedly by heavy-footed humans. Mark rotary hoed it for me first. I then raked and contoured the beds, digging yet again when it came to planting. We mulched some of it after planting but ran out of both compost and wood mulch so some areas missed out.

In the time since, I have gone over and over the bare surfaces with my little Wolf-Garten cultivator, scuffing off the germinating weeds. The thing about thick layers of mulch is that they suppress germination but do nothing to kill the dormant seeds that can last a very long time in the ground. I like to think that every round I do that dislodges germinating weeds is another rash of unwanted seeds dealt to. It should save time and effort in the long term. Mark has been saying in encouraging terms that the layer of loose soil on top that I am constantly cultivating acts as something of a mulch layer, protecting the deeper layers from drying out so quickly.

Left to right: my excellent Joseph Bentley border spade with its oak handle, Mark’s prized Planet Junior that he uses to cultivate the soils in his vegetable patches and the smart Wolf-Garten cultivator

The rains have also demonstrated clearly that the very well cultivated and friable areas have benefited the most with their capacity to absorb far more moisture. We will remain diggers here in areas where we are growing perennials, biennials and vegetables and some of the areas with bulbs. Established trees and shrubs do not benefit from having the ground beneath cultivated, but many other plants will reward you with increased vigour and improved performance.

Treat yourself to a decent spade, is my advice.

Earlier related posts include ‘The answer, as they say, lies in the soil’ on the importance of getting your soils right for healthy gardens and ‘Raised beds and to dig or not to dig, that is the question’ which I wrote before it even occurred to me that digging has the added benefit of enabling the ground to absorb a great deal more precipitation.

As a postscript, I googled ‘diggers’ and came up with this Wikipedia entry. “The Diggers were a group of Protestant in England, sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism and also associated with agrarian socialism and Georgism.” Not that we are Protestant. Nor do we see ourselves as radicals, let alone anarchists but we have some sympathy for those early socialist principles and a belief in a more egalitarian society. Diggers we will remain.

Looking forward to 2018

The birds’ nests have nothing to do with the content of this post. But they are more beautiful than stacks of heavy duty plastic bags, containers of spray, irrigation wherewithal and the rest.

‘Touch the earth lightly, Use the earth gently’* as we enter 2018.

Most of us are happiest when surrounded by people who share our values and think in similar ways.  And that is true of the gardening world as much as any other sector. I assume that people who are not interested or irritated by my gardening views either stop reading or unsubscribe. But nothing shouts louder to me that there are many gardeners who are on an entirely different trajectory than the garden-related advertisements on TV. There are not a lot of these in this country – it is a market largely driven by small suppliers and marginal profits. But when it comes to advertising, the likes of Tui, Kiwicare and sometimes Yates have it covered. And many times, what the former two at least are selling is death. Knockdown sprays that come with a promise to kill faster and more thoroughly than ever before. Is this really what gardening is about for their target market?

The dainty filigree weaving of the waxeye nest, held together on the outside with strands of everlasting, synthetic baling twine in the modern tones of aqua blue

There is a myth that gardening is, by very definition, good for the environment. It can be but it is not a given. As the world enters the uncharted territory of a new year and the growing awareness of the appalling and indefensible environmental harm being caused by humankind, it behoves all of us, in my opinion, to take a close look at how we live. And how we garden.

Earlier generations did not need a different type of fertiliser for every plant group. It is marketing that has convinced the consumer that they need an array of bags of fertiliser – one for tomatoes, another for citrus, yet another for roses while rhododendrons and camellias need their own unique blend. And that regular fertilising is a necessity (or ‘best gardening practice’). That is nonsense. Get your soil right, and you should be able to eliminate most purchased fertilisers by using compost, green crops, worm farm liquid or similar home-generated remedies which have a proven track record down the millennia. Powdered or granulated fertiliser is a pretty recent phenomenon and yes, it does encourage plant growth but the environmental cost is high. New Zealand’s love affair with nitrogen can be traced straight back to big business and profit which fails to factor in the wider costs.

Gardens should not need regular applications of fertiliser. It is just bad management from a gardening point of view. And expensive.

Surely the most inviting nest of those here is the exquisite creation of the chaffinch with its outside covering of lichen and inside feather-down lining

Nor should lawns need frequent fertilising and spraying. Truly, it is long past the time when we should have reviewed the prestige value of the perfect lawn. Canberra daughter tells me that a green lawn where she lives is either astro turf or a sign that the homeowner is breaching water restrictions. A perfect lawn anywhere is a sign that its owner is willing to pour all sorts of chemical concoctions onto the grass with scant regard for the environmental aspects.

I am not advocating getting rid of all your lawns. Just change the way you look at them and ponder instead, how to manage blocks of grass without the application of a whole lot of fertiliser that you then wash away into the wider environment with frequent irrigation.

The remains of a thrush’s nest is more like half a coconut shell – firmly moulded and plastered on the interior. With incorporated synthetic black twine. 

Garden to your conditions rather than trying to alter your conditions to your style of garden, especially when it comes to water use. Irrigation systems for gardens are a red flag that you are growing the wrong sort of plants for your area.  You should be able to grow plants in the soil by watering them in initially and then maybe the occasional drink while they settle in but then leaving them to the elements. English gardening doyenne and pioneer of the dry garden, Beth Chatto, has the simple mantra “right plant,  right place”. If you are having to irrigate regularly to keep your plants alive and healthy then you have the wrong plants, not the wrong place that you alter to suit the plants. So often I read descriptions of gardens and the first thing that goes into many modern gardens with bigger budgets is the irrigation system. That is wrong on so many levels.

The soft and welcoming nest of the greenfinch, we think, lined in wool and edged with green mossy strands. The nest is too large to be a goldfinch. 

We used to shudder at how much plastic we used when we had the nursery running. Look around your plant centre at how much plastic your plants involve and ponder which bits you can do without. It takes a brave and driven person to return the plastic to the retailer and insist they take responsibility for it. I read recently of someone who sorts her purchases at the supermarket checkout and leaves items of unnecessary packaging there and thought that was not really going to be my style at the local Waitara New World. But you can decline single use plastic bags to hold your plastic plant pots by simply carrying a carton or having a boot liner. You can avoid or reduce the use of the products out the front of the plant centre, all bagged in single use, heavy duty plastic sacks – the potting mix, the compost, the decorative gravel or lime chip and the host of other products, few of which you probably need.

The tui builds a big, bouffy, soft nest for its young, somewhat aerated with its coarse twigs 

The planet desperately needs more trees, in New Zealand where trees are seen as expendable, as much as anywhere else in the world. And if you can plant trees, they are going to do far more to counter growing carbon dioxide levels than bedding begonias or compact shrubs will ever achieve. That said, any flowering plants which have visible stamens and pollen will support the smaller insect life that our ecosystems need – particularly bees.

Fungicides, herbicides and broad spectrum insecticides are not great at all for the environment. The more you can reduce your use of them, the better. We have tracked the glyphosate debate down the years and were not entirely convinced by the declaration that it may cause cancer. Many things cause cancer, including the charcoal on barbecued meat. But the recent research coming out from Canterbury University on the link between herbicides, including glyphosate, and antibiotic resistance in bacteria is seriously worrying. I, for one, do not look forward to living in a post-antibiotic world. I was once hospitalised for several days on a drip because of a puncture wound on my foot. The subsequent infection was resistant to all but the last line of hospital-only antibiotics. We need to worry about these things and take some responsibility at a personal level.

The remains of a blackbird nest, built on an internal platform of layers of mud and straw. With polyprop strawberry netting added – a reminder of how birds will find waste lying around. 

For us, the very essence of good gardening is about enhancing nature, about adding to sustainable eco-systems. It is not about controlling it and being convinced by modern consumerism to use a whole lot of products that actively harm the environment. And truly, I will judge you if you tell me you are keeping your buxus hedging alive with regular spraying, that you fertilise your lawn to keep it green or I spot your irrigation system. I may not say anything to you about it but I will be mentally raising my eyebrows.

It matters how we garden. A lot. At least, to us it does. I am not given to inspirational homilies, but we could do worse than to reflect on the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes as we enter 2018.

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach…. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

 What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.”

If you want the entire quote, you will find it here.

‘Touch the earth lightly’ is from hymn but I never got past the first verse and the credit here.

A gardening year in retrospect. 2017

Sunset in Camembert. I am not joking . There is a village of that name in Normandy and I took this photo on a day in late June when the temperature hit 40 celsius. We nearly melted. The cheese did melt.

In all my years of garden writing, I am not sure I have ever looked back on a year just past. Looked forward, yes. Often. But reflecting back – not in the written word until now. Has 2017 been particularly distinctive in gardening terms? Not in extreme terms, but it has certainly been a very full gardening year.

The best gardening book of my year, without a doubt, was the collected columns of contemporary English garden writer, Tim Richardson. Titled You Should Have Been Here Last Week, it was full of thoughtful and opinionated gems and is a book that is worth going back to read again. For me, it eclipsed the gentle collection of Dan Pearson’s gardening columns, ‘Natural Selection’ which had its own charm but became a little heavy going after a while. I have not seen any New Zealand gardening books to recommend. But I can whisper that I have at least started work on my own, after a year or two’s procrastination.

New Zealand is left high and dry when it comes to TV gardening too and we keep going back to Monty Don and BBC Gardeners’ World. We were not instant Monty fans but have grown to really enjoy his delight in his own garden and his measured approach. I say that even after discovering he has two paid gardeners to assist behind the scenes. Gardeners’ World has been around since the beginning of time (or 1968, so coming up to 50 years) and still delivers quality gardening advice and insights in a low-key style that we appreciate.

While on media matters, a personal highlight has been getting to know Auckland garden designer and current garden media celeb, Tony Murrell. We have a weekly conversation on his Home and Garden Show on Radio Live but even more extended conversations off air. It is a rare privilege to work with someone who is a complete professional in his public life, full of enthusiasm, ideas and delight which carries over into his life off the airwaves too.

Breakfast in Tivoli. Bought in the local market and taken back to our AirBnB

We live in the country so I like to travel and to seek experiences and ideas beyond our self contained little patch of this world. Mark, not so much. In fact, he only participates in my advance planning in the most desultory of ways. But when I crank him out of the country, he is a marvellous companion who focuses 110% on the experience. Our trip to Italy, Normandy and England this year was a real highlight for us. It was my third trip to Italy, Mark’s second and we both fell in love with the place in a way we have not before. Mark credits AirBnB which put us right in the heart of the old town of Tivoli and gave us a far more personal connection to the locals than staying in a hotel can ever do. And while getting to Sermoneta was a traumatic experience that might have driven less staunch couples to divorce , staying there was a delight. Seeing the incidental wildflowers at Villa Adriana, the wonderful old olive grove and experiencing the classic architectural lines of the golden mean visible there were truly memorable, even in the heat.

Garden highlights were Le Jardin Plume in Normandy, the pond and the simplicity of the plantings in front of the villa at La Torrecchia (which, despite being in Italy, is early Dan Pearson work) and the privilege of being able to explore and experience the famed Ninfa Garden all alone and at our own pace. All confirmed for us that our gardening hearts lie with the gentle naturalism of more contemporary styles that is so evident in the approaches taken by many modern European and British garden designers. We have a long way to go in New Zealand in learning to garden so that we walk more lightly upon this fragile environment of ours and see beauty in Nature and her serendipitous ways.

Wildside Garden – still a major highlight for us second time round

When we reached England, we felt we were on more familiar ground. Because we travel so far and pack a great deal in to what are generally just three week excursions, we don’t often go back to see gardens that we have visited before. But on this occasion, we chose to go back to both Bury Court and Wildside and neither disappointed. These are two of the most exciting private gardens we have visited – gardens which delight at the time, stay in the memory and are a rich source of inspiration for how we garden at home. On this trip, we were also privileged to see a private garden that is the work of Dan Pearson and, on the day we visited, as close to a perfect domestic garden as we have ever seen. We can learn from every garden but sometimes it is a revelation to learn from the work of somebody who is at the top of their field right now.

The unexpected highlight of the English section was looking at the work coming out from Sheffield University landscape department and Nigel Dunnett in particular which we saw at the Barbican, at Olympic Park and at Trentham Court. Do a net search on Pictorial Meadows if you want to see more of the commercial work coming out of Sheffield. It is glorious.

The Sheffield style is at the extreme end of naturalistic gardening with lower inputs, low intervention, working in cooperation with the environment and ensuring that plantings enhance eco systems rather than imposing them upon the natural environment. But they generally lack strong design elements which are what give definition and longevity in a gardening environment.

Our meadow where we have reached some level of sustainability and consistency

At home, we have been focused on bringing together elements of the new naturalism style, meadows, sustainable practice and soft-edged romanticism that appeal to us but within a stronger design framework and working in an established garden with a fair swag of notable, long-term trees. Our meadow is progressing beyond the experimental stage as we have refined the low-input techniques we use to manage it and it is a real joy to us. The next step is to look for plants that will enrich the diversity and add visual interest beyond the spring peak. Mark finds the addition of larger flowered, dominant perennials or annuals out of step with the natural look so we are assessing resilient small-flowered options that we can naturalise without creating an environmental disaster of weed potential.

Not our garden. I have this filed under ‘meadow mistakes’ – using an overbred hybrid in a natural setting

Mark’s gardening efforts this year have been dominated by food production and seeing to what point he can keep us self-sufficient in a vegetable-rich diet. It takes a lot of time, effort, skill and space to be this productive and even then the grains and tropical fruits remain on the shopping list. We could, I guess, go without the tropical fruits but we are not that purist.

I have never grown a vegetable in my life and have no plans to start. But I have had a great deal of active pleasure, starting the plantings in our newest garden area which we currently call the Court Garden – on account of the large green space in the middle of the design which currently looks like a somewhat unkempt tennis court but is destined to become a meadow through the seasons in the style of Nigel Dunnett’s Sheffield School plantings. This is former nursery, maybe an acre or more in area.

Mark recently described this new garden area to a neighbour as our last lunge – a major development that we need to do before we get any older and the hard physical labour gets beyond us. In a mature garden, even a very large one such as we have, it is a different experience to be faced with bare space, full sun and open conditions. Years have gone into its planning and it will still take more for it reach the glory we plan. We have also factored in how we integrate this new and different area into the established garden we already have.

One of the double borders in our new area in its first spring

The court garden, started from a blank canvas

It is a development that we simply could not have done without the accumulated experience we have gained through our gardening lives. It also draws heavily on the inspiration and observations from our gardening travels. And it is possible because of the expertise gained in years of nursery work and Mark’s foresight in setting aside plants and growing them on in field conditions so that we could bring in the framework trees and shrubs as an advanced grade without having to spend money on buying them. We could not have afforded to do it if we had to buy the plants because it takes a lot to furnish a space as large as this.

I have loved developing parts of this area this year and seeing it start to come together as it grows. Mark, too, has been delighted by my efforts because he had not found the time or motivation to start the detailed filling in of spaces himself. I am delighted that he is delighted with my efforts because, in gardening terms, I will always defer to him as the senior partner here.  Will there be an end result? There will come a point when we feel ready to show this new garden to other people but gardening to us is always an active process with no plans for an end result. If we found no pleasure in the process, we would lose interest very quickly.

Finally, on a practical level, I recently raved about my new mini cultivator. It is terrific and I use it often. We have never gone in for all the whistles and bells of garden implements so we are VERY late to the scene with the Niwashi weeder which was a Christmas gift to me. And now, all I can say is, how did I manage so long without one?

An antipodean Christmas greeting

It took a pocket full of dog biscuits to persuade our pair to pose for a festive snap down in the meadow. From left to right, Sharon, Kevin, elderly and deaf Spike and food-focused Dudley at the front. The story of how and why the reindeer are known as Kevin and Sharon is a family joke that may well be lost in the retelling.

I had always regarded our Christmases as a traditional affair – our own traditions adapted for an antipodean summer season – the preparation, the food, the protocols of how the day must proceed. We are lucky in that our children continued to place a high priority on coming home for Christmas well into adulthood, even when it meant exorbitantly expensive, festive season, international airfares. I figured that they came home for those very family traditions.

But times change, and this year only one could get back. And it made me realise how our family traditions gently evolve, particularly with regards to food. Mark and I are about 90% vegetarian nowadays but returning daughter made it very clear that the Christmas ham was non-negotiable. When I realised this, it created a problem. Of all the meats, the industrial production of pork distresses me so it had to be a free-farmed ham. It was a mission, I tell you, to find a free-farmed ham that was not so large that it would feed 40 people. I think I may have found the last small sized one in town. I was triumphant.

It was doing the final Christmas shop that made me realise how much we had changed the way we eat. We are determinedly reducing the amount of packaging and plastic that comes into our house. And apparently our taste buds change. So that final shop was heavily focused on tropical fruits and good cheeses. And a better class of wine than we used to drink when we were younger and poorer. While we produce the greater part of the food we eat these days (and at least the raspberries are our own), the likes of mangoes, pomegranate and tropical pineapples are beyond us unless we build a tropical house. Nor do we have the right climate to produce peaches and apricots that are shipped here from drier parts of the country with hotter summers. This is now a household that is light on chocolate and junk food, very light on meat but we can offer plenty of good cheese and fruit and wine! And ethical ham….

Seasons greetings and may your festive season be full of laughs, love, companionship and good cheer.

A New Zealand Christmas post would not be complete without a photo of what we call the New Zealand Christmas tree that grows all round the area where we live and flowers at this time – our pohutukawa or Metrosideros excelsa. We prefer it to the prickly holly.

White frou frou, shades of green and jute twine

Ammi majus – my seed source currently growing in Mark’s vegetable garden

On our Sunday morning discussions on Radio Live Home and Garden Show, Tony Murrell and I have started an ongoing topic of colour. Last Sunday, we opened with the revered or reviled white gardens. Revered by many because, you know, Sissinghurst and sophisticated. Reviled by those who see it as a contrived and dated cliché which can be very flat, lacking vitality or oomph.

I have pretty much covered all my thoughts on white gardens in recent posts – White Gardens for the New Age and Shades of White in the World of Flower Gardens – and I do not think that I have more to add to that. Just a quick update on my own efforts on a seasonal white border to shine before the auratum lilies bloom in a riot of summer colour.

I want white frou frou

I mentioned this to Tony and he asked if I would consider renga renga lilies (Arthropodium cirratum) which are in bloom at the moment and looking very charming at our entranceway. I recoiled in horror but not because I don’t like the plant. I want frou-frou – light white froth dancing in the air. The renga rengas are too heavy, too weighted to the ground. So my plans are for the popular Orlaya grandiflora, Ammi majus (the Bishop’s flower) and even coriander and carrots which have light, white umbelliferous flowers. Maybe I will admit the pure white poppy that is flowering at the moment.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have started planting this garden. Now it is on hold but in hand. This is a new area and the rabbit problem has been devastating. They have probably taken out half the auratum lilies as they came through the ground and it will be interesting to see how many of the bulbs survive in the ground through until next spring. Mark and the dogs are doing their best. The dogs are particularly highly motivated, having no residual qualms about Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket. With one dog now elderly, slow and stone deaf and the other dog being a townie in his earlier years and still learning the role of rural estate dog, their enthusiasm is not matched by their success. Mark has by far the greatest hit rate – nine so far. In the meantime, the rabbits had eaten all my early efforts at planting out white umbellifers.

Maybe I will add the white poppy to my frou four mix

Also, being a new garden, there is a mass of weeds germinating so I am assiduously cultivating the area every few days. This is an easy task with my trusty and trusted Wolf-Garten mini cultivator but ongoing. Worth it, I think. Given that I want to sow the area in predominantly self-seeding annuals, if I spend this year getting the area weed free, it is going to save me an awful lot of work in the future when it comes to weeding. In the meantime, I am gathering seed to save for next year so that I will be ready to go when the area is relatively rabbit and weed-free. Gardening has taught me patience in a way in which none of my other life experiences have.

Having ‘done’ white gardens, Tony and I plan to go onto other monochromatic gardens (the blue, red or yellow border), the two-colour schemes (maybe red and white, or blue and yellow), then managing more complex colour schemes and the impacts of whites and pastels as well as the curious colour impacts of orange and yellow in a mixed border. Also the role of greens and whites in colour schemes. Are they colour neutral in garden settings? I am sure I will harp on about my intense dislike of pink and yellow as a colour combination. That will be Sunday mornings through January on Radio Live.

Not all greens are equal or natural, let alone invisible!

While on colour, I was slightly surprised at the suggestion from an esteemed gardening colleague that you could spend your down time in winter painting your garden stakes green to make them less obvious in your garden. To be honest, it had never occurred to me to do this. I mentioned it to Mark and he thought that it would be better to paint them in jungle camouflage rather than straight green.

It is so easy to get the shade of green wrong, in which case your ‘invisible’ stake suddenly becomes highly visible. A friend who trained in design once commented in passing that if you want something to recede into the background, you use black. Not shiny black, I would suggest, and maybe not pure black. Think creosote colouring – matt and dark.

In terms of unobtrusive tying, I have now gone to old fashioned jute string which is apparently still on the market though I have yet to find who is selling it. I shall go looking and stock up because it is one of those traditional products that can suddenly disappear. I have tried many tying options, including black twine (but it was synthetic), nursery tying tape (black plastic) and stockinette ties in muted hues. The jute twine is easy to use as long as you are tying loosely, so unobtrusive it is near invisible and it is a natural product. This means that when it comes to de-staking plants later in the season (I am currently staking some of the lilies), it doesn’t matter if the ties fall to the ground to gently decompose. That is my practical hint of the week. Find some jute twine. We have been horrified at the amount of plastic that has turned up in birds’ nests. Maybe they will find the jute twine instead.

Finally, on the topic of green and white, can any knowledgeable gardener confirm with authority that this is an albuca and put a species name on it? Huge bulbs, as large as any I have seen, which like to sit half out of the ground and flower spikes up to a metre and half tall. The albuca family is a large one that I am having trouble disentangling, especially as we have thought for many years that this plant was in fact an ornithogalum. I am not sure where we got that idea from.

Postscript: a helpful and knowledgeable reader tells me the plant is most likely Albuca nelsonii and from an internet comparison, that certainly appears to be the case. The largest of the albuca family.