The times, they are a-demandin’ change

Currently a bit forlorn, but give it a few months and it will look very different

The rose garden has gone. Gorn forever. Henceforth this area will be known as the sunken garden. Because the centrepiece is the sunken garden area – Felix and Mimosa’s DIY colonial Lutyens effort, as I have described it. It is all fashioned from granite, marble and brick. Mark once water blasted it and it came up an alarming shade of white.

An undated photo but best guess is around the mid 1950s. The marble lining is still white

I, too, could get it looking pretty but it took a lot of work and it didn’t stay looking pretty for long enough to warrant the effort

It was the rose garden because it used to house Mimosa’s old rose collection. I think I can recall it as being fantastically opulent, voluptuous and romantic with the air hanging heavy with scent – but only for a couple of weeks in spring. The rest of the time, it could look pretty scruffy. By the time I came onto the scene here in the eighties, it was already past its peak.  This particular garden has probably had more attention lavished upon it in the last 30 years than any other area. Major makeovers, not just regular maintenance. At least four major makeovers that I can recall doing myself. And no matter how hard I tried, it looked okay in winter, really pretty for a few weeks in spring but scruffy in summer and autumn. I could not keep it looking good all year and it finally reached the point where I avoided looking closely, preferring to skirt around the outside rather than walking through it.

We have a date on this photo – 1961

Felix, down  to his woollen singlet but still wearing his tweed hat putting in the stone millwheel table and benches. The wheel is the inner, turning centre of the mill, used for grinding papa to make a low quality brick on a neighbouring  farm. Felix traded two sacks of potatoes for the wheel. The date of this photo must be mid to late 1950s

It is obvious what the problem is when I look at the old photos. When Mimosa started and had the area at its peak in the late 1950s and 1960s, conditions were very different. It was open and sunny and the plants grew without competition. In the 70 years since she started, the backbone rimu trees have doubled in size and their root systems have grown to match. Half the area is now always bone dry, sucked out of nutrients and plants have to compete with the rimu roots. The area has also become enclosed, very sheltered and the sunshine hours have been reduced by a whole range of perimeter plants.

I wrote about this area back in March  when I was into full-on stripping out. It would have been easier had I been composting the plants but I recycled most of them. It would also have been easier had I not planted quite so many bulbs through it over the years. Clearing the area was a major operation and has generated many, many more square metres of ground cover than I started with to use elsewhere. There is much to be said for digging and dividing. The good picking roses have been relocated to the vegetable garden where it does not matter that they get black spot and suffer from defoliation. I can at least pick the flowers. We do not have a good climate for roses.

Finally, the last plants were gone at the weekend and the area was bare. Lloyd, our extraordinarily handy and obliging man about the garden, has moved in extra topsoil and raked and levelled to get it ready for sowing in grass. The eight camellias and two maples will stay and be shaped into gnarly, character, feature plants. We normally avoid growing plants in mown lawn areas and I know I will have to hand-trim the grass around the trunks but I am willing to do that. We do not like the weed-sprayed brown look of lank grass around trunks and I have no desire for the tidy, suburban look of encasing each trunk in a tidy round concrete circle planted with pansies. For those of you who want to know what the camellias are, two are the gorgeous species C. yuhsienensis, two are Mark’s ‘Pearly Cascade’ (C. pitardii hybrid) and the four standards are one of Mark’s hybrids that we never released but we refer to as ‘Pink Poppet’.

I am anticipating that once the grass grows we will have something far more sculptural to look at. And that seems a more appropriate look for the next era of this garden. Gardeners must look forward, not try forever to recapture the recalled magic moments of the past.

Again, this must be 1950s – the planting of the azalea bed that provides the far boundary to this garden, butting up to the rimu trees

Match the two horizontal branches in the preceding image to how they look this very morn. After 60 years, the trees have more or less doubled in size

The same Kurume azaleas as they look today, this time viewed looking from the other direction, underplanted with cyclamen. 

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The death of a living legend – RIP Beth Chatto

Beth Chatto dead? This should not be a surprise. She was 94 but she seemed to have an air of gentle immortality about her. We were privileged to meet her in 2009 and to have her take us around part of her garden in Essex. Despite a large staff, a thriving nursery, extensive café and many garden visitors, she still lived in her fairly modest house in the centre of it all and the garden remained her very personal creation. The privilege was to be given a glimpse of the garden through her eyes. At 85, she wasn’t doing a lot of hands-on gardening herself, but she was in total control of managing it on a daily basis. It was gratifying to have her contact us after that visit, through our mutual friend, the late Charles Notcutt. She wanted the name and details of a plant remedy Mark had mentioned in conversation.

We returned to her garden with Charles in 2014 but she was too frail that day to join us. It was a bright, sunny day and I have since regretted that I did not get good enough photos of her dry garden in the glaring light.

Others will record the contribution made by this diminutive giant of the gardening world for half a century through her writing, her garden and nursery and her public appearances. Personally, we celebrate her exceptional plantsmanship in every aspect of her work and the cutting edge innovation of her dry garden.  She loved plants, found them endlessly fascinating and she knew how to work with plants. Those high levels skills show in a garden.

The original garden is perhaps a little dated by modern standards – rather a lot of curvy, hose-pipe borders – but always managed to the highest horticultural standards and underpinned by that knowledge of which plants will perform in those conditions and co-exist well with each other. I would love to see the woodland area in early spring when it must be magical but the UK in early spring is a bit cold for us these days. It is the dry garden that lifts a visit to another level altogether.

We have spent quite a bit of time making sense in our own minds of contemporary European and UK gardening trends – New Perennials (where Piet Oudolf’s work is still the gold standard), the New Naturalism, meadows, prairies, ecological gardening, matrix planting, sustainable plant communities and what we call the romantic revival or, simply, romantic gardens.  And in Beth Chatto’s garden, thirty years ago, she was creating the precursor to all these modern trends in her new dry garden. In a very dry climate, nothing is irrigated in this garden built on a compacted carpark and river gravel. The skills lie in plant selection and the light-handed but deft management which allows plants to have their own space and follow their own natural inclinations. She had a rare combination of exceptional plantsmanship and top-level gardening skills.

I did not so much appreciate her combinations of pink and yellow but that is a matter of taste, not skill.

Beth Chatto will go down in history alongside other great gardeners. And so she should.

Despatches from the frontline in Tikorangi Gaslands

Todd Energy’s Mangahewa D site, April 15 this year. Photo credit: Fiona Clarke

I have not written much about the oil and gas industry all around us in the last few years. This does not mean it has gone away. Not at all. It is a sign of me deciding to take better care of my mental health and to look inwards to our own patch of earth where we can largely control what happens. Continually banging one’s head against a brick wall takes its toll. And the global decline in prices slowed the intense activity which had reached intolerable levels by 2013.

The recent announcement by our new government flags change for the fossil fuel extraction industry. For us, personally, it changed both everything and nothing.

It changed nothing in that the government announced an end to new permits for offshore drilling and to new land permits for everywhere else in the country, except Taranaki. So it changes nothing for Taranaki – all permits will be allowed to run their course and some new ones will be offered even though company interest in new areas had waned long before this change in policy. Essentially, it is a message to Taranaki that it has 30 years max to transition away from its economic dependence on fossil fuel extraction.

The reaction locally was instant and entirely predictable. Headless chooks or Chicken Licken come to mind. “The sky is falling!” “This is the end for Taranaki. Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights.” “This move will increase our emissions and accelerate climate change.” Yes, the conservative Opposition really do claim this. Do not let the facts get in the way of a good bit of fearmongering to political advantage. “We didn’t see this coming,” bleated Tag Oil. And our local mayor expressed similar, surprised outrage. They must have had their eyes shut for the indicators have been flashing red, warning lights all around the world in recent times. Our government is not acting in isolation.

Global warming, anyone? Flaring gas is commonplace here. This is MHW D site again, in March this year. Photo credit: Fiona Clark

And in some ways, the announcement has made things worse for us in the short term. Todd Energy, the company that has the highest impact on us personally, has dramatically lifted their level of activity around here. It is not quite as bad as it was in the horror years of 2010 to about 2013 but some days it feels as though it is getting back up there. It is difficult not to believe that Todd Energy are going for it as hard as they can, while they still can in order to extract as much of the profitable gas as quickly as they can. We may be in for another rough spell in the next few years.

But also, everything has changed. The oil and gas industry is no longer the glamour boy of the economy. Now its very social license to operate* is moving from being set in concrete, to wobbling about in jelly and on a definite trajectory towards going up in a puff of its own smoke. Excuse the mixed metaphor. Time is running out for it, for the times they are a-changin’.

At last, I feel we are on the right side of history and not just an outlier on the fringes. While any move to put the brakes on fossil fuels and to foster changes to more sustainable practices will continue to get a hostile response from many in Taranaki, the move against maximising the dollar at the expense of the environment and the very future of the planet is gaining strength. New York City is suing the big petrochemical companies over climate change.  Much of Europe is setting tight time limits on fossil-fuelled vehicles. The world’s largest fund managers are quitting their investments in fossil fuels at an accelerating rate. Other countries are also banning new fossil fuels exploration – France, Denmark, Costa Brava, Ireland, Belize.   Our world is changing at an extraordinarily rapid rate.

Just another LPG tanker flashing past our gateway. The high volumes of heavy transport have a huge impact.

Occasionally, in moments of self-flagellation, I dip into the local social media comments on this recent change in government position. I usually back out very quickly. It is generally old men who declare our dynamic, young woman prime minister as “an air-head with no policy who will be booted out next election”. The transfer of power to a new generation is clearly a challenge. I have no patience with the person who was greatly concerned with the future of the gas-powered barbecue. Also those sneering types who think it is up to ‘the Greenies’ to come up with viable energy options which are a like-for-like substitute before they will decide if they, personally, will make a transition. It will not come down to personal choice in the end. My greatest scorn is for the nitwits who like to target anybody who cares about the environment and belittle us as ‘hypocrites’ because we still use vehicles and phones and wear some synthetic clothing. The subtext is: “you are hypocrites so I do not need to do anything at all to change my ways”. I will derive some personal satisfaction from seeing these nay-sayers dragged into the 21st century. Maybe at some point they will make the connections between their beloved fossil fuels and increasing severe weather events and climate change, rising sea levels and the escalating erosion of our coastline, insurance companies refusing to cover vulnerable properties and all the rest of the related effects. Maybe it will dawn upon them that the degradation of our fresh waterways as a result of excessive nitrogen leaching can also be traced to a large extent to our use of gas to make cheap fertiliser from the 1980s on.

I am proud of a government that has been brave enough to set new policy that recognises the need to change. I appeared as a witness in a case before the Environment Court recently. Taranaki Energy Watch are challenging the loose rules set by a local body in managing oil and gas development. It was an oddly empowering experience, telling the three Commissioners what the impact of the development has been on us personally. I realised it was the first forum I have spoken in where attitudes were not already entrenched.

“What would you like to say to Todd Energy?” asked one of the commissioners. I had to think for a few moments before replying. “Goodbye,” I said.

I hope I live long enough to see that happen. With the recent change in government policy, I think it is now a matter of how soon it will happen.

*What Is the Social License? The Social License has been defined as existing when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders, ongoing approval or broad social acceptance and, most frequently, as ongoing acceptance.

I keep my eyes looking inwards to our own space as much as possible

What a difference a year makes

Off topic but a pretty flower to lead – Nerine bowdenii coming into bloom. The last of the season to flower and the easiest of the nerines we grow

Remember those TV programmes from ten or even twenty years ago that were all about instant makeovers? You too could have your messy back yard transformed into beautiful, landscaped space within a day. Fortunately, we seem to have moved on from the techniques that had to be used to make a photograph-ready scene immediately. Nowadays, it is more common for programmes to include a more modest, practical make-over section where the presenter talks the viewer through the process and explains how the plants will grow to fill the space, rather than trying to create the illusion of instant show garden.

The techniques of creating a show garden – reaching their zenith at Chelsea Flower Show – are very different. Those are a combination of ideas and illusion, designed for a temporary installation and they don’t have a whole lot to do with actual gardening. For starters, the plants are generally kept in their pots and packed in really tightly before being covered with a carpet of mulch to hide the evidence. But those earlier makeover TV garden shows seemed to imply that it was possible to create an instant, fully furnished garden. It isn’t. Gardening takes time.

We are blessed by a benign gardening climate where we live. Most of New Zealand has extraordinarily fast growth rates compared to other parts of the world and you can accelerate the growth rates even more if you are willing to apply large amounts of fertiliser often. We don’t do that, preferring to rely instead on home-made compost, gardening in line with our ethics. For how we can we complain about modern farming practices and the deterioration of fresh water in this country if we are doing the same thing on a smaller scale in our own gardens?

April 21, 2017

It was interesting this week to chart the growth we have achieved through photographs of the new gardens we are working on. This photograph was taken just over 12 months ago – late April. The area was a blank slate and had been nursery so laid in weed mat for three decades. This had compacted the soil badly and after planting the first few plants, I decided it was all too hard to dig and I would take up Mark’s offer to rotary hoe it.

December 2, 2017

Come December, it was pretty much planted out. I, personally, have planted every single perennial in there and added no fertiliser except some compost at the time of planting. Nothing has been watered. We garden without irrigation here. Mark often describes our place as ‘a poor man’s garden’ (excuse the gendered language – I have yet to come up with a pithy, gender-neutral term which would be more accurate). If we had to go out and buy the plants, we could never afford to garden on the scale we do. I think I bought maybe 10 new grasses to go in this garden. Everything else has been relocated from elsewhere here.

May 7, 2018

 

 

Now, in autumn, the whole area looks remarkably well furnished and under 13 months have passed. All that is needed is some tweaking. I want more blues in summer. Fortunately, Mark has a row of very good blue agastache in his vegetable garden (for the butterflies and bees, you understand) that I can raid. I am a bit worried about the phlomis which look overly enthusiastic out in the sun. They are far more restrained in their habits growing in the woodland gardens where we have them established. The Calamagrostris x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather reed grass) may prove to be too vigorous in our conditions. But that whole process of editing and tweaking and modifying as I learn is what gardening is all about.

The caterpillar garden this week

The grass garden took priority. Over on the other side of this new area, I have nearly finished planting out the caterpillar garden. It is a very different style of planting, far lower and more restrained although the area involved is similar – about 30 metres long and up to 8 metres wide. It is also under siege from the local rabbit population. I find the rabbits generally leave the plants alone if they are surrounded by wood shavings. We have tried various strategies to deal to the rabbits but have grown desperate enough to think we may have to resort to poison. For us that is really desperate. We prefer to keep to trapping or shooting vermin rather than poisoning. It will be interesting to see how quickly this area fills out. The planting has again been carried out using relocated material – from the former rose garden that I have been stripping out. No plants have been purchased. But even I am amazed at how many plants it takes to fill in a blank space – hundreds and hundreds of divisions, maybe thousands. Mind you, I am planting closely. That is how I will get a carpet covering within the year.

Gardening is not an instant activity. But a year to go from blank slate to looking well-furnished and established seems the next closest thing to instant results for us.

Pensive thoughts on a rainy Saturday

I do not know whether it was the rainy Saturday that made me pensive or whether it was my somewhat melancholy state of mind. Either way, I took a damp walk around the area we call the park. While the autumn colours seem quite striking this year and relatively early considering we have only had two cold days so far, I am not sure that damp autumn days are uplifting to my soul.

But I have been pondering the differences between those of us who see gardening as a process and those who see it as a product. I am happier in the company of the former – those who enjoy the act of gardening and see it as a journey where there may be a destination in mind but experience says that such a goal will be but transient and fleeting and not an end point at all.  For a garden can never be static and frozen in time so will never be finished or full. I suspect these are the characteristics of a gardener.

There are many who see a garden as a product – a particular destination or point of achievement in a creation that can then be frozen in time. This, I think, is probably a viewpoint of a garden owner who is not a gardener by nature. I felt a passing pang of sympathy for landscape designers. I would guess the majority of their paying clients fall into this category. Some may come to understand the whims of nature but many more make a rod for their backs, requiring that a garden be preserved in pristine condition at a certain point of its development.

But Sunday dawned fine and dry which meant my usual cheerful disposition was restored. We cannot complain about an autumn which delivers us a  daytime temperature of 24 degrees Celsius and night time temperature still well into double figures. Behold Mark’s pride and joy – his luverly bunches o’ bananas. Several lovely bunches. We are super marginal when it comes to growing bananas for tropical we are not. These are the only plants we cover for winter – festooned in protective shade cloth suspended on a giant bamboo frame.

Drying and then cleaning the soy bean crop before weighing and storing

An unusually warm and long summer may well have helped. It has certainly given us the best ever second crop of figs with which we are barely keeping pace eating fresh. And a bumper soy bean crop. I mean, what are we meant to do with 20 kg of soy beans when there are only two of us? I have made the first batch of soy milk to see if we will enjoy using it as a dairy substitute and I am even contemplating trying my hand at making tofu. Readers who have met Mark may be amused to hear that he calculated his 20 kg of cleaned soy beans as a yield of 3.6 tonnes to the hectare and was gratified to find from a net search that this is on the good side when it comes to commercial yields. I admit that I am grateful that he only flirted briefly with the idea of growing lentils. Considering how cheap these are to buy, the potential yield per hectare seems remarkably low. But I did not realise that Canada is the main global producer of lentils until I did a did a net search.

Persimmons are probably more decorative than a must-have harvest

Otherwise, the autumn harvest here is all about avocados, yet more avocados (guacamole, anybody?), seemingly endless feijoas, the aforementioned figs and the impending deluge of persimmons. Dudley dog is looking so plump from his excessive consumption of avocados that his flesh how has ripples of fat and his ongoing issues with eczema have disappeared – quite possibly due to the high oil content of the avocados. Mark checks several times a day for windfalls in an attempt to outwit this dog thief.

It seems churlish to bemoan the occasional rainy autumn day.

The autumn camellias

Camellia sasanqua Crimson King in prime position

When Mark returned home to Tikorangi in 1980 bringing me and our first baby bump, the name Jury was synonymous with camellias. These days Jury = magnolias, but not back then. There is a whole chapter in the family history that is headed ‘Camellias’ but it is largely in the past now. Changing fashion, changing focus and the dreaded camellia petal blight has seen to that.

But every autumn, as the sasanquas come into flower we both derive huge delight, particularly from the Camellia Crimson King by the old mill wheel, which is just out from our back door beside the driveway. It is a picture of grace and charm.

Crimson King rests more on its merits of form and position than the beauty of individual blooms

Sasanquas are the unsung heroes of the camellia family, seen mostly as hedging plants, so utility rather than glorious. But if they are allowed to mature as specimens and gently shaped down the years, they stand on their own merits. Mark declared yesterday that it is the autumn flowering camellias that interest him now, not the late winter and spring varieties. For these autumn ones do not get petal blight whereas the later varieties are now a mere shadow of their former selves, faced by the extreme ravages wrought upon their blooms by blight. Our camellia trip to China in 2016 had us concluding that our mild, humid climate with high rainfall means that we suffer worse from petal blight in Taranaki than pretty much anywhere else, really. It is nowhere near as bad in dry climates.

The history of camellias from the middle of last century onwards has some parallels to the history of tulips – all about show and showy blooms. So it was predicated on the quest for the new – extending the boundaries of flower form, size and colour, prizing breakthroughs even when the results were more novelty than meritorious. Camellia societies had enormous flower shows where the staging of individual show blooms was the focus. It didn’t have much, if anything, to do with garden performance let alone longevity as garden plants. Sasanquas didn’t fit this show bench mould. They flowered too early in the season, individual blooms are often quite small, lacking rigid, defined form and falling apart when picked.

But fashions and conditions change and these days it is the softer look of the Japanese camellia family member, the sasanquas, that makes us stop and take notice more than the later flowering japonicas and hybrids on which the earlier family reputation was forged. The light airiness and grace of the sasanquas fits our style of gardening far better than the solid, chunkiness of many of the later varieties and the autumn flowers serve as another marker of the change of season.

The earliest of the sasanquas here – all named varieties

I did a walk around to see how many different blooms I could pick but it is still a little early in the season and some have yet to open. Some plants we leave entirely to their own devices, some we will clean up the canopy from time to time -to take out dead wood and create an umbrella effect, two we clip tightly once a year to a cloud pruned form. With their small leaves, the sasanquas clip well. It just pays to do it soon after they have made their new growth after flowering. Leave it until late spring and you will be clipping off all the flower buds set for next autumn.

Camellia Mine No Yuki

It takes a few decades of growth to get sufficient size to shape as we shape ‘Elfin Rose’ and ‘Mine No Yuki’ but these specimens now function as distinctive shapes within the garden all year round, rather than melding into the background as most camellias do when not in bloom.

Another one bites the dust

With an increasing number of what are called ‘extreme weather events’ in the face of climate change, we just have to accept that falling trees are a fact of life here. We have a garden created amongst large trees. But none are as vulnerable as our old man pines (Pinus radiata). Planted in the 1870s by Mark’s great grandfather, some tower as high as 45 or 50 metres. We just have to accept that they appear to be reaching the end of their life span. And as yet another one falls, the next trees in the row lose their shelter so may be weakened.

Totally uprooted, the Ficus antiarus which dates back to 1957

We usually say that it is amazing how cleanly big trees can fall, especially ones that don’t have a lot of big side branches or a great deal of foliage. But not the one that fell last night. It has clearly done substantial damage as it came down. The worst is the total uprooting of the rare Ficus antiarus which will require a major effort to get back upright and planted again. The macadamia nut tree is probably unable to be salvaged. Mark is a bit sorry that it only brought down part of the expendable Lombardy poplar and not all of it.

The tree tips, like a giant spider, descending on the new caterpillar garden area

And 50 metres of tree coming down as one long length extends… well, it extends 50 metres really. So this one lies through the avenue garden, across the intervening hedge, through part of Mark’s tropical palm border and the top landed in my recently planted perennial beds of what we call the caterpillar garden. I am not thrilled by this.

With Auckland being badly hit by falling trees in last night’s storm, I come back to my position on the chilly moral high ground. With these increasingly frequent events, it is not a sign that we should be felling all trees. Yes, it is important to keep a close eye on vulnerable trees and branches. But we need to match the felling or falling of trees with the planting of more trees in places where they have a reasonable chance of growing to maturity without causing problems to life and property. Which usually means on public reserves when it comes to cities. A dendrologist friend said that it should not be a one-for-one replacement but a five-for-one ratio to allow for those trees that die or are killed before they reach maturity. And that is just to maintain the status quo. We need to think about these issues because the planet needs more trees and city folks should not be consigned to living in concrete and tarmac environments where nothing is allowed to grow over two metres tall. The problems lie not with the trees themselves but with where they are planted, how they are maintained and which varieties are being grown.

I wryly suggested to Mark that maybe we should be renaming our Avenue Gardens the Pine Log Gardens and he quipped that our stumpery is growing. We will follow our practice of clearing paths, removing all the side branches and cleaning up the collateral damage but leaving the body of the trunk where it fell and gardening around it. As more huge trees fall, we  have a stumpery by chance, not design.