Bulbs play a major role in our garden. We use a huge range of bulbs, many no longer available commercially. Some never were readily available. Very few of those we grow are the larger, modern hybrids which are generally what are on offer these days. We prefer the simpler style of the species or at least closer to the species.
Added to that, seventy years of intensive gardening across two generations has built up the numbers most satisfyingly. Most of our cultivated gardens have bulbs incorporated in the plantings. Or at least bulbs, corms, tubers or rhizomes to cover the range.
We have a fair few that are fleeting seasonal wonders in our climate but we just adjust our expectations. The cute erythroniums – dog’s tooth violets – are maybe a 10 day delight and can be taken out by untimely storms but that is just the way things are.
I don’t grow any in containers now although the same can not be said of Mark. His bulb collection is currently sitting in limbo for us all to see the scale as his inner sanctum – his Nova house – is currently being relocated. He hasn’t taken good care of them in recent times but he is determined to keep some of the rarer, touchier varieties alive. It is possible to maintain a more comprehensive bulb collection if you are willing to faff around with growing them in containers in controlled conditions. I am not so dedicated. My interest wanes if we can not grow them in garden conditions.
It is the random bulbs beyond the gardens that are currently bringing me pleasure. Some of these have been planted. Some have popped up from our nursery days. When trays of bulbs were being repotted, Mark had a strict rule that fresh potting mix was to be used (granulated bark was our chosen medium). Hygiene, he would explain. The old potting mix was spread around the place and at times it had seed or tiny bulbs within it. I am guessing this is how the Gladiolus tristis, a species gladiolus, came to be at the base of a cherry tree. I certainly don’t remember planting it there and I can’t recall it flowering before.
When we plant bulbs beyond the cultivated garden areas, we try and select spots where they can establish in fairly undisturbed conditions. At the base of trees is good, as long as there is plenty of light. Around old tree stumps, on margins that don’t get mown often, or in little spots where we can walk past and be surprised to see them in bloom.
It is both the transient nature and the detail that makes bulbs so interesting in a garden context. Far from simplifying our own garden as we age, the more we garden, the more we like to add fine detail. That is what keeps it interesting for us.
Our world has shrunk again to a very small, very local area. Mark left the property this week for the first time since the Delta Covid outbreak started on August 17. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how he would cope with this new era of compulsory mask-wearing and scanning but he managed just fine. And if my Mark can cope with masks and scanning, so can everybody else. I know the rest of the world has been masked for the better part of the last 20 months but it is very new here, though I had our range of reusable, pretty masks at the ready.
On my weekly shopping trips (I am not just the designated shopper here, I am and always have been pretty much the only shopper), I have been amazed at the exceptional levels of compliance in our local areas. Everybody is not only masked, scanning and maintaining physical distancing, they are doing it with patience and good grace. Melbourne son keeps saying to me that New Zealanders are compliant people. I was surprised when he first said this because I do not think that we have a particularly compliant culture. Upon reflection, I don’t think what is happening here is unquestioning obedience. I think it is more about a shared vision and a strong sense of community and for that, we can thank the very clear messaging and communications from our government.
Fingers crossed that this Delta incursion over our border can be eliminated in good time so that our garden festival can go ahead in just over seven weeks. I am hoping we can do it without needing to mask but, if necessary, we will mask and not complain.
In the meantime, special thanks and acknowledgement to Aucklanders. Yet again, Auckland is bearing the brunt of lockdown measures to keep the rest of the country safe and free from Covid and it is really hard. The rest of us need to be very grateful to them. The alternative of having Covid running through our country is grim, indeed.
My eyes have been focused locally on my once-a-week trip out to get essential supplies. Somebody had been clipping hard but with great precision on this driveway sited on the crest of small hill across the river from here. I don’t even know what those trees are. I didn’t get close enough to inspect but they certainly make a sharp statement. Are they incongruous in their rural setting or a really interesting contrast? I lean to the latter.
I spotted this red rhododendron last week and went back to have another look yesterday because I regretted not stopping at the time. Last week it was glowing brightly in the light, not quite so much yesterday but still bold and vibrant. It is a local selection of R. arboreum which is named ‘Kaponga’, renowned for its high health. When it comes to rhododendrons, those big ball trusses are not my personal favourite, but I couldn’t fault this handsome plant. The fact the property owners stained their fence dark rather than leaving it in its tanalised state helps show off all the plants to advantage.
In my local town, I stopped to photograph this handsome pair of red cordylines (cabbage trees) which look very sculptural in front of a fairly plain house. There are a number of named red forms available, but they are generally just selections of our native C. australis ‘Purpurea’. True, close up the foliage looks as chewed as all other NZ cordylines but that is because it is a native moth whose caterpillar munches on the leaves.
Almost opposite was a new garden which was really quite amazing. I think we could describe it as largely Italianate with a touch of pre-Raphaelite. I will say no more except to note that it has been constructed and furnished with much care and attention to detail and is clearly a source of pride to its owners.
Finally, back to the bridge at the top. It is the historic Bertram Road bridge, not far from us. I have a bit of a thing for bollards so I was delighted to find @WorldBollard on Twitter. It is the official account of the World Bollard Association (who knew?) and clearly over 30 000 other people have an interest in bollards, too.
Bollards play an important role on this bridge. When it was restored and reopened to vehicle traffic, maybe back in the 2000s, the bollards were not quite as resolute as these current ones. But a stupid driver of a heavy transport truck thought he would ignore the warning signs and take a short cut over the bridge, demolishing the sides and a fair amount of the decking. Personally, I think he was lucky to get the truck off the bridge without it collapsing into the river because he far exceeded the allowable weight.
When the bridge was reinstated, the bollards were moved in to narrow the space further. Judging by the state of them, they have inflicted quite a lot of damage in the last few years as people have found their vehicles – particularly the modern twin cab utes – are too wide to fit. They are renowned too, I am told, for taking out wing mirrors.
It is just a question of lining the car up to stay very close on the driver’s side, keeping very straight and taking it slowly. Personally, I have never even brushed one of those bollards. Our Sydney daughter declared she would not be risking it herself when I took her over the new narrowed version on her last trip home.
From our neighbourhood to yours, stay safe. Fingers crossed for positive progress this week on dropping Covid case numbers down to low single figures.
For overseas readers: we had one Covid incursion that escaped our border quarantine and that one single incident has so far produced 902 community cases. We know they all came from that one single infection because all cases are genomically sequenced in NZ. New daily infections had dropped to just 11 on Friday so Saturday’s 23 cases were a disappointment. That is over the entire country but we want it back to zero again. We are playing the long game here, playing for time to get the population vaccinated and also to see how Covid is going to pan out internationally before we risk opening the border without the current tight quarantine. ‘Learning to live with Covid’ still looks pretty undesirable when we have been so successful in learning to live without it.
Who knew that magnolia petals are edible and, when pickled, make a pretty fair substitute for that pink pickled ginger (gari) often served with sushi? I didn’t, until it came down my social media a few days ago but plenty of other people did. I found this out when I googled ‘pickled magnolia petals’. Even Jamie Oliver has a recipe for them on line.
The recipes seem to be fairly uniform and not at all complicated.
Pick four cups, loosely packed, of fresh magnolia petals (see my notes below on petal selection).
Blanch the petals in boiling water for 30 seconds then drain, cool quickly and dry. I laid them out on paper towels.
Boil 1 cup of apple cider vinegar, ½ cup of sugar, 1tsp salt and a 2cm knob of peeled ginger.
Pack the petals in a clean jar and pour over the boiling liquid. Mine filled a Roses marmalade jar.
Seal and leave for 24 hours. Once opened, store in the refrigerator.
Surprisingly, they do taste and handle remarkably like the pink pickled ginger.
Magnolia petals are edible fresh and can be used in salads – but I can not describe them as delicious. The outside petals can get a slightly bitter after taste. Maybe take a few bites to sample when picking to pickle and you will soon get a feel for which ones will pickle the best.
I picked a mix of colours – red, pink, yellow and white. It is too early for me to advise whether some colours taste better than others. Others declare that different varieties of magnolias have different flavours but I wanted to post this before magnolia season finished so maybe we can crowd source reader opinion on this?
Next time, I will keep to younger flowers. It is easier to handle petals that are on the smaller side so the cup-shaped magnolias (often soulangeanas) are perfect candidates and bruise less than the large cup and saucer blooms with huge petals. I wouldn’t cut the petals as one recipe advised because they instantly turn brown which is not a good look.
My pickle is still very fresh but it is certainly tasty with cheese on a cracker. I plan to do a second jar to keep sealed until summer when I make sushi again but I can see it will be handy to use as a fresh pickle in many contexts, not just limited to Asian inspired dishes. It is certainly cheap and fast to make.
It is just a common old silver birch – Betula pendula. It is not even one of the more highly prized white barked or named forms. There is nothing special about it botanically speaking. It is not well suited to our conditions because it prefers a drier climate and it is hardy to cold winters. It is really messy, dropping fine twiggy lengths all year round which get caught in the lower canopy plants and it defoliates by late summer because rust attacks the leaves. Of late, it has been dropping not just twiggy sprays but also smaller, dead branches.
Nevertheless, I felt a distinct sadness when I looked at it yesterday and thought ‘No, it is time for you to go. The decision can not be delayed much longer. Tree euthanasia’.
It is one of the original trees that Felix planted back in the early 1950s when he started the garden. A large branch dropped out in the early 1980s and Felix suggested then to Mark that he could cut the whole thing out. But Mark decided not to and just did a clean-up. Now it appears that the tree is rotting from the scar of that episode but at least we have had an additional 40 years of pleasure from it.
Why do I like it? I love the graceful bare form silhouetted against the sky. It has always been part of our view from our favoured seating spot in the front porch where we often sit together for a coffee, tea or wine. I have photographed it countless times, simply because of that silhouette. Given its propensity for early defoliation, we get the silhouette unimpeded by foliage for at least seven months of the year now, maybe eight. When I look at older photos, it certainly used to have a lot more foliage and branches than it has now.
The birds love it. It is a favoured staging post, whether for Mark’s tumbler pigeons, our native woodpigeons – the kereru – rosellas, common old sparrows, tui and the rest. It has birds resting in it, surveying the lie of the land, almost all the time. It is not a feed source, it just gives a good view. There are plenty of other trees around and I am sure the birds will adapt quickly but I will miss the sight of them pausing there on their busy rounds.
It will be a job for our arborist. While access is easy and it is not a difficult tree to remove, it has a lot of rot in it and it stands maybe 15 metres high. But really, the concern is for the low stone wall that separates the driveway. Felix built the wall back in the early 1950s and it is a patchwork of wafer-thin split stone. We don’t fancy having to rebuild a section of it if we dropped a big branch on it. Our arborist is very good and he will manage to avoid such damage. But it can wait until our garden festival is over in November.
I have decided I just can’t get excited about hellebores. The most common hellebore – Helleborus orientalis – in particular, but not exclusively so. Not in our conditions with its mild climate and the explosion of spring flowers we get before winter has even officially ended. I have seen them in colder climates and they are way more rewarding than here.
I have tried and so has Mark. I have mollycoddled them, replaced inferior performers with better selections, weeded out endless seedlings, scrupulously dead-headed them to reduce unwanted seeding and to hold the infestations of aphids at bay, removed unsightly foliage (it takes years for scruffy spent foliage to drop and decay of its own accord), given them compost, bought new selections and still they are underwhelming. Mark has raised many seedlings of controlled crosses to get cleaner colours and flower spikes that stand above the foliage and they can look very promising in nursery pots and very average in the garden.
I don’t know how many H. niger we have raised and planted out. It is the pretty, low-growing white with the upward-facing flowers held just on the foliage. It is a one season wonder for us. I was delighted with ‘Angel Glow’ but after three very pretty seasons, it has all but disappeared this year.
They are not all without merit. I remain sold on the ‘Marbled Group’ from UK breeder, Rodney Davey. ‘Anna’s Red’ and ‘Penny’s Pink’ remain the best of that series in our garden but we also have ‘Molly’s White’, ‘Ruby Daydream’ and ‘Sophie’s Delight’. Just a word of warning: ‘Anna’s Red’ made a big and luscious plant so I thought I would divide it to use it further. It did not appreciate this treatment and has been slow to recover- as in a few years, not months. Mark informs me that hellebores do not generally like being dug and divided in the same way as other perennials. They can sulk somethin’ chronic.
Helleborus x sternii is a mainstay in the woodland garden and very easy care. All it ever needs is the spent flower spikes removed at the end of the season. So too with H. argutifolius which is one of the parents of x sternii. H. foetidus is fine – more utility than exciting and it can spread a bit but it has interesting foliage. What these three have in common is that they all have green flowers but hold their flower spikes up above the foliage.
And therein lies the problem. There are many lovely staged photos of picked blooms arranged to face upwards. I have done a few myself. But that is not what they look like in the garden where H. orientalis is characterised by downward facing blooms. And as soon as one gets into the popular double blooms, the extra weight drags them over even further. Also, the interest in the dark slate colours – the deeper purplish-black the better – is based on picking a flower and looking at it facing upwards. As a garden plant with those dark flowers, they just tend to meld into the backgound. The best I can say is that orientalis opens a wider colour range than the other types we grow.
While I am in awe at the far-reaching and long-standing enthusiasm that has made H. orientalis such a popular plant, they are best in cold climates which don’t have the same options we have. Colder, drier climates are even better. With calanthe orchids and Hippeastrum aulicum both in full bloom at the same time, I am not convinced that the utility hellebores that grow in similar conditions are worth more effort on my part. If you really want to grow them in softer climates like ours, keep them in a pot. They seem to perform better in controlled conditions. I don’t love them enough to give them that sort of special attention.