Giving thanks for when midwinter turns to the cusp of spring

I was going to limit myself to a theme of red and yellow but te mounga (the mountain, Mount Taranaki) was looking so very beautiful, I wanted to share the glorious sight again

I have twice heard our government give a strong message to New Zealanders to get home urgently while they still can. The first time was in March last year when then deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, said it and it was certainly chilling. At the time, I wondered if he was being overly dramatic. He wasn’t. Within days, flights had slowed and then they stopped entirely for a time.

We heard the same message from our Prime Minister on Friday, this time aimed at New Zealanders in Australia. It was just as chilling. Get home in the next seven days or risk being stranded indefinitely.

And Magnolia campbellii is coming to its peak flowering

I saw a tweet come down my line from a journalist that made me laugh – in that ‘if you don’t laugh, you will cry’ sort of desperation. I went to look for it this morning to screenshot it for this post but it has gone. She must have decided it was too flippant when there are thousands of our citizens in Australia scrambling frantically to find flights and then get negative Covid tests within the required time frame. It showed two small boats with people on them and the caption read: ‘Is this our Dunkirk moment?’

Covid is not done with us yet. Even though Mark and I are Pfully Pfizered, as I say, I am deeply grateful to be in one of the very, very few countries in the world that has no Covid past the border and my gratitude for how our government has managed it so far remains strong. I just wish we didn’t have so many whingers and moaners looking for fault. Just look beyond our borders to see how bad it could have been here, too.

Narcissis Twilight – blooming their little hearts out down in the park

On a perfect morning like yesterday, I could not think of a better place to be. Magnolia season has started, the narcissi are coming into bloom and we are at peak snowdrop. It may still be midwinter here but we are on the cusp of spring. All I have to offer is colour. And flowers.  

Magnolia Vulcan – where the passion for red magnolias started here
Magnolia Felix Jury followed
And then came Burgundy Star, shown here, and Black Tulip which is not yet showing its full colour

We always get the best red shades on the earliest blooms each season and we get the very best shades of red overall. They don’t look this colour in all climates and soils across the world.

Mark’s Lachenalia reflexa hybrid

While the red magnolias dominate the early season, when it comes to lachenalias, it is the yellow and oranges as well as red that bloom first. We have to wait for later in the season to see the less vigorous but arguably more desirable blues, lilacs, pinks and whites.

Hippeastrum aulicum

Still with the bulbs, the first hippeastrums are opening. We don’t go in for the hybrids much, preferring the evergreen species of H.aulicum and H. papilio which have settled in very happily to their permanent homes in the woodland.

Camellia impressinveris

It is, of course, camellia season. I spent some time this week writing a piece about camellias for an overseas publication so I am a bit camellia-d out but the yellow species never fail to thrill, even if they are not as floriferous as the more usual varieties.

One of Mark’s seedling vireyas

The big-leafed rhododendrons down in the park are just starting to break bud and show colour but the sub-tropical vireya rhododendrons in the upper gardens flower intermittently all year so we always have some in bloom. This a scented red which Mark raised for the garden that has never been named or put on the market.

In the chaos of the wider world, home has never looked safer or offered more solace for the soul.

Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to Festival 2021

Believe it or not, the Taranaki Garden Festival has run every year for 34 years. It started life as a rhododendron festival and we still have a few rhododendrons in the garden, quite a few in fact, including the lovely sino nuttallii.

The official programme for the Taranaki Garden Festival was launched this week.

Last year, when we reopened for the first time in seven years, it coincided with the domestic tourism boom after our short lockdown. The numbers were astounding but we managed, bar the poocalypse. This year, I thought visitor numbers might receive a further boost from Australian garden-lovers starved of other travel destinations. Chance would be a fine thing.

We follow Australian Covid closely with our immediate family spread across three states there. We had hoped for an extended weekend get-together in August. Somewhere more northerly in Australia we thought – maybe the Whitsundays or even the Sunshine Coast, thereby introducing a fourth state into already complicated travel plans. For overseas readers, this was because of the introduction of a quarantine-free travel bubble between NZ and Australia. That is not going to happen since the arrival of the Delta variant into Australia and the suspension of the travel bubble. Clearly planning ahead with any certainty is not an option at this time, though I have pointed out to our children that when the bubble reopens, it does appear that there is less likelihood of getting trapped on this side than on the Australian side. But I am guessing only a few intrepid Australians who can risk getting trapped away from home by a Covid outbreak may turn up for our garden festival.

The world may be sick of Covid but Covid is not done with us yet.

Hippeastrum papilio in the Rimu Walk

Back to the festival. We are reopening but only for the ten days of from Friday 29 October to Sunday 7 November. I was so shellshocked last year, I wasn’t sure we would reopen but the addition of Zach to our small team has taken the pressure of preparation right off me and the garden has never looked better. We have never been so advanced in our preparation this early before. There will be no neglected areas or tasks unfinished, the way we are going. It brings the pleasure back to gardening when the anxiety and pressure of getting it to opening standard is relieved by an extra pair of very capable hands.

The Court Garden in early November – one of a series of five new summer gardens we have created in the years we spent closed

Following the success of the workshops Mark and I offered last year (well, mostly me, to be honest but I am reliant on Mark as my in-house technical advisor and resident expert), we are offering more this year. So many people missed out on  ‘New Directions with Sunny Perennials’ that we are offering it twice this year, with another valuable year of experience under our belts. The blurb reads:

New Directions with Sunny Perennials

For over a decade, Mark and Abbie have been looking at modern trends in perennial gardening, variously described as ‘Dutch New Wave’, ‘New Perennials’ and the ‘New Naturalism’. This has culminated in the planting of the summer gardens. Join them for morning tea and a talk on key points they have distilled from visiting over 90 gardens in England, France and Italy, tracking the work of six contemporary designers and how they have applied this in their own garden.

Monday 1 Nov and Saturday 6 Nov 10.15am – 12.00

Are you looking for gentler ways to garden?

Instead of repeating the meadow workshop, we have expanded it to take in managing a wild garden as part of our personal commitment to finding softer, more naturalistic and sustainable ways to manage our garden.

A Gentler Way to Garden

The Jurys have been exploring strategies to ensure their garden is not only beautiful but also sustainable in the longer term and biologically friendly. Join them to learn about meadow styles and management and the techniques underpinning their new Wild North Garden and their park meadow.

Sunday 31 October 10.15am – 12.00

We are well on the way to being ready to open the Wild North Garden

All the information is online here and you can request a hard copy of the programme. Bookings for our workshops are essential and can be made through that link to the Festival Office.

We would love to see some of you here this spring.

Melding the old gardens with the new into a single garden experience

Building bridges

Building, not burning.

Lloyd has been busy in the Wild North Garden. With a network of ponds and natural springs, we need bridges if anybody other than ourselves is to venture round.

Forever to be known to me as Gloria’s bridge, for reasons known to Gloria and her crossing of the small stream

Most of our bridges are simple affairs. Because we can get flooding, they need to be secured and stable but are we certainly not building dinky humpback bridges with a nod to Japan and China. They are very popular, I have noticed, in other people’s gardens.

Simply referred to as the stone bridge, because that is what it is
The high bridge with its new timbers. It is a fair drop down to the rapids and water below

In the days when we were a bit more ambitious about opening to the public, we put two bridges in the park which were conceived as features. What we call the high bridge or the wisteria bridge is constructed on an old truck chassis that had been galvanised to protect it from rust. It is not visible, but that is what is holding the bridge timbers securely. Both it and the stone bridge were constructed by a hyperactive and obliging German engineer who was spending some time in New Zealand.

If you are building a bridge from scratch, may I recommend staining it from the start, rather than painting it? That is, if you don’t want to leave the timber in its natural state. Stain tends to age more gracefully than paint. Repainting a bridge regularly, let alone the preparation work necessary for getting the fresh paint to adhere, does not sound fun to me. We stained the new timbers on the high bridge because we had to replace the weathered timber with tanalised pine and I am not a fan of the look of tanalised pine.

Basic but adequate construction. Fit for purpose, we might say.

The other three bridges – yes, we have five down in the park – are definitely more rustic. It is that simple construction that Lloyd is repeating on three of the four new bridges we need in the Wild North Garden. He drives wooden piles into the ground, secures cross bars to the piles and then attaches rough sawn timber to those cross bars, also wiring the boards together so that if one comes loose, the other may hold it in a flood situation. In a life rich with sheds, we have various lengths of interesting timber stored for the day we may need them, like now. Being rough sawn, they don’t get as slippery as finished timber but he has wrapped one or two down in the park in chicken netting, secured beneath, to reduce slip hazards.

The fourth new bridge is more of a conundrum. When Mark first started working in that area, he had three large tree logs placed where he wanted bridges. His plan was to get somebody with a large chainsaw in to carve a flattish walkway into the trunks and to add side railings. That was 20 years ago and two of those trunks are no longer sound enough to work on. They can just gently moulder away. The third one is still remarkably sound and is in exactly the right place for a bridge but it no longer seems a good plan to chainsaw into the old trunk. It will open it up to rot all too quickly. Mark hopes that it will be possible to construct a timber frame and attach it to the trunk and then secure bridge timbers – walking planks – and side rails to that frame. Watch this space. Lloyd is a practical and experienced man. If it can’t be made to work, he will tell us. If it can, we will have a bridge that is more of a feature than a utility crossing.

Beware of using bridges as pointless garden features. Or, if you are going to make a bridge to nowhere, make it a BIG one. I give you two examples, both from Yorkshire in the UK, oddly enough.

Unnecessary. And a bit twee, to my eyes.
Castle Howard

Finally, may I urge local readers to take time out to admire the stand of Magnolia campbellii down in the gully in Powderham Street, opposite the condemned parking building (or beside the liquor store, if that is a better locator for you). Or just along from this view of the windy wand.

Len Lye’s wind wand. Turn right at this intersection to the find the magnolias

In our garden, our eyes are so often trained upwards to look at magnolia flowers on the tops of mature trees so it has a certain novelty looking into huge magnolias in bloom at eye level. That is the effect you can get when you plant in a gully.

The stand of three Magnolia campbellii on Powerderham Street last Fiday

Of weather, early magnolias, possums and rats

Frosty mornings from Wednesday to Saturday showing up the lawnmower lines

We had to drive to Wanganui and back on Tuesday morning – a five hour round trip. On the way down, we drove through snow (inland from here), sleet and hail as the first polar blast of winter hit. By the time we drove back the sun had appeared but with a biting cold wind that felt as if it had come straight off the ice caps of Antarctica. Wednesday dawned bright, clear, frosty and calm though cold and that has been the pattern in subsequent days – cold mornings and sunny days.

Sunrise on Wednesday morning

The magnolias are undeterred. Matariki[i] is underway and the plants agree that this is the time to celebrate the start of a new year.  It will be another few weeks before the Magnolia campbellii in our park will be in full bloom but my annual pastime of photographing the magnolia and te mounga[ii]  has started.

Absolutely shameless, this kereru was, eating the magnolia buds as we watched

By 10am, it is warm enough for us to sit outside for morning coffee and this shameless – shameless, I tell you – kereru[iii] took up its position in a magnolia a few metres away, eating the petals of the first buds showing colour. It may have been its mate just down the driveway that was doing the same to the first buds on Magnolia Vulcan. We are more charmed than miffed. Soon the trees will open so many blooms that they will outpace the kereru. We would rather have resident kereru all year round than perfect first magnolia blooms. I am told kaka – our big native parrot – can do the same but we have not had a mob of kaka descend on us. A reader tells me she once watched them strip every bud off a magnolia. The only two kaka we have seen here arrived singly in different years and while Mark saw one of them pulling buds off Magnolia Iolanthe to hurl at the tui who were protesting its presence, it takes more than one to strip a tree. Rosella parrots – a showy Australian intruder – are also reputed to cause damage up north but we haven’t seen them doing it here and we do have them turn up in small groups. 

Just an unnamed seedling, as we say

The only magnolias in full bloom so far are seedlings from the breeding programme that will never be released. We only ever name magnolias that are going into commercial production and these first ones are just too early, too vulnerable to winter’s icy blasts to put on the market. They exist solely to give us pleasure on our own property. Some of them are such good performers that an identifying reference name evolves. So it is with Hazel’s magnolia. We get asked for funeral flowers from time to time, or we offer to do informal casket arrangements for people we know. This magnolia formed the centrepiece of an arrangement for Hazel, the mother of a close friend of Mark’s and a dear lady who meant a great deal to him in his younger years.

Hazel’s seedling at its best
Hazel’s seedling this week. The red arrows show what is likely to be damage from a kereru eating the young petals. The green arrows to the left show burning from the frosts this week.

Hazel’s magnolia makes a pretty picture every year. It performs well and, we found, also holds well when cut. In the world of magnolias, it is not remarkable. There are prettier colours, more distinctive forms and it flowers way too early for most growing conditions. It just happens to be the first of the season for us, standing out in bloom where it is growing in the shelter belt that protects one of our open paddocks.  Yesterday, it looked great from a distance. Close-up, it revealed two problems. The chewed blooms are almost certainly the result of kereru feeding on the sweet, young petals. The browning is frost damage and if it gets damaged in our mild climate, it will get destroyed in colder conditions.

Magnolia buds that will never open to good blooms. Every one of them has had the centre nipped out of them.

We have long assumed that the chewing out of young buds which then open to distorted blooms can be attributed to the pesky possums that Mark wages war on all year round. We certainly could have done without the early settlers introducing the brushtail possum which is a noxious pest, optimistically slated for eradication in this country, though protected in its Australian homeland. Mark is now wondering whether it is a combination of rats and possums.

Possum guilt. That red is a stomach full of magnolia buds. Our magnolia buds.

We know possums are guilty. Mark has shot enough of them in magnolia trees and the proof lies in an examination of their stomach contents. All that red? Those are magnolia buds. Rats are harder to prove because we never seen one in the act and we don’t have the corpses to perform a forensic analysis of stomach contents. But when all the buds failed on a plant of Honey Tulip last year and closer examination showed that every single bud had a neat incision in it, he thought it may be rat damage, not possums. We know possums eat out the centre of larger buds with colour already developed. It seems like the very small nips in the less well-developed buds are rats.

Our pick is that the large bud on the left has been eaten out by a possum. The two smaller buds are more likely to have been attacked, ever so neatly, by rats. Possums don’t attack the buds at that early stage.

In the meantime, how many photos of the magnolia and te mounga do I need? I shall stop now until more blooms are open. But glory be, how I love big, beautiful magnolias against a blue sky or snow.

Thursday morning
and Friday afternoon. At least the frosts aren’t bad enough to take out the Magnolia campbellii blooms

[i] Matariki – the Maori new year, determined by the rise of the Pleiades star formation. 

[ii] Te mounga – the mountain in local dialect. In standardised Maori, mounga is more commonly seen as maunga. Otherwise known as Mount Taranaki.

[iii] Kereru – native wood pigeon. It is fully protected because its numbers are declining due to loss of habitat and its very slow rate of natural increase – most breeding pairs only raise a single chick each year.

An unrepentant kereru eating the first buds on Magnolia Vulcan

On another topic, rather than a postscript, those who read my May post about Mrs Wang’s garden (and there were many of you. I know this from my site stats) may enjoy this delightful and affirming update. I feel vindicated. Mrs Wang is indeed a first-generation New Zealander, she declares herself to be a digger and she did indeed experience the devastating famine in China during her childhood. I did not, I admit, pick her as a professional civil engineer. Those whose ugly response when the story broke was to defend the establishment by attempting to discredit Mrs Wang with vile speculation based entirely on their own prejudices, need to take a good hard look at their own racism. I am not referring to comments on my post – readers here are in a different league but I saw some pretty awful speculation and accusation coming through on other social media. There is much that is good in this world for those who choose to see it.

The first bloom of the season opening yesterday on Magnolia Felix Jury. We get the best colour on the early blooms.

Winter has arrived on cue

Early blooms on Mark’s Camellia Volunteer

Here we are in midwinter, just past the shortest day, which was last Monday, and in the middle of Matariki, the Maori New Year which is determined by the rise of the Matariki (Pleiades) cluster of stars, so determined by astronomy not the Gregorian calendar.

Our first polar blast of winter is forecast to arrive this week. The golden days of late autumn and early winter are over. Winter, of course, is a relative matter. We have only ever had snow once here in Tikorangi – on August 15, 2011, to be precise. It was a memorable event. Our worst weather here is usually limited to heavy rainfall – which can seem incessant – and sometimes wind. We moan about that but it is more soggy, grey days than months of bleak weather when it is too cold to be outside.

Magnolia campbellii

I headed out with my camera before the heavy rain set in this morning. Matariki and the winter solstice are always marked by the early blooms on Magnolia campbellii here. Now I just have to wait for the few days of calm, clear weather over the next six weeks or so when conditions are right to capture our seasonal scene of the magnolia and te mounga.

Luculia Fragrant Cloud and moth-eaten cordyline

The luculias are all in bloom and sweetly scented too. ‘Fragrant Cloud’ is my favourite, seen here alongside a typically moth-eaten native red cordyline. Why do I say typically moth-eaten? Because that is literally true. Our native cordylines look much cleaner overseas whereas you would be hard-pressed to find one here that does not have holes in all its leaves on account of a native moth, Epiphryne verriculata. Its common name is the cabbage tree moth – of course it is – and it is only found in NZ. We have to take the rough with the smooth here and at least it is all part of our ecosystem.

Crassula ovata in the rockery
It is a tall begonia, probably a species – one of those plants that quietly occupies a frost-free position and never demands any special care while flowering most of the year

Also signs of a climate that is remarkably benign, the Crassula ovata and a tall begonia are also blooming happily in midwinter.

Daphne Perfume Princess, easily distinguished by its vigour, health and a very long season in bloom, as well as larger individual flowers

We have Mark’s Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’ well represented in the garden. That is because when he selects a new plant, he carries out propagation trials and we need to build up stock to be able to start the licensed growers with initial material. We gave a certain number of plants to friends but I must have planted out at least fifteen of them around the garden – all by paths or the driveway so we can catch the delicious scent as we pass.

Camellia yuhsienensis
I helpfully added a red arrow just to draw attention to the posterior of a busy little honey bee working the flowers in midwinter

On a gloomy winter’s day, the coloured camellias like ‘Volunteer’ at the top cheer me up more than the white ones, but Camellia yuhsienensis is looking delightful – seen here used on the farthest margins of the summer gardens. Even on a grey day, the flowers are feeding the honey bees at a time of the year when food sources are in limited supply.

Chionochloa rubra with our native toetoe (Austroderia fulvida) behind. These native grasses need plenty of space

Zach cut down all the Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ in the Court Garden last week and lifted the lot. We only replanted around 30% of them at wider spacings. Here’s hoping I have the spacings right this time because it was a big job. Interestingly, it is our native plants that are the winter stars. The form of Chionochloa rubra (red tussock) is a constant source of delight to me and it looks best when it stands in its own space, rather than being hemmed in by other plants. The red and black phormiums (coloured flaxes) have come into their own with a bit more size and the silver Astelia chathamica glows in the lower light levels.

Red flaxes and silver astelia are particularly distinctive in winter

The use of native plants is one aspect that sets of NZ gardens apart and never more so than in winter because, with very few, minor exceptions, they are all evergreen. We don’t have the bare borders in winter that characterise so many northern European gardens in colder climates. A mix of natives and exotics carries us through twelve months of the year.