A water meadow

img_6423December was memorable last year. Finally, we achieved the water meadow effect we have been striving for in our park.  This was thanks to the iris and to our learning how to manage long grass in ways other than cutting it.

higos-7There are anything up to 300 different species of iris but the one that comes to mind most frequently is the bearded iris. These are ephemeral delights in our climate with its high rainfall, high humidity and fertile soils, so a joy in bloom in October but over all too soon. The so-called Dutch iris flower earlier in spring. These are hybrids of 3 lesser known species, often somewhat derided, seen as a little vulgar even, but they can look charming enough in the right setting and are easy to grow.

Iris sibirica

Iris sibirica

November is the month of the sibirican iris which are happier in our wet conditions. The most common bright blue form is ‘Caesar’s Brother’ but there are other selections around which flower at slightly different times and extend the season well into December. The common name of Siberian iris suggests that they originate in Siberia – which they do, but they are not limited to that area in the wild, growing instead right across Northern Europe as far east as Central Asia. Unlike the bearded iris which prefer sandy, lighter soils where their rhizomes can bake in the sun, the sibiricans thrive in heavy soils and on the margins of wetland areas.

higos-1In early spring this year, I spent a few muddy days down by our stream, digging out the yellow flag iris. We had several large clumps of these and they flowered well every year. Alas, they are a recognised weed in this country and we felt we needed to take an ethical stand and remove them because they were planted by and in running water. Every piece of rhizome that breaks off or gets washed downstream has the higos-5potential to grow and we didn’t think that establishing mats of flag iris all the way to the ocean was a good reflection on us. In digging them out, I can tell you the dense mat they form is not unlike wild ginger. I replaced them with a mix of Higos and sibiricans which may spread by seed but don’t form the choking, solid mats.

higos-3Every time the Higos bloom, we think most kindly of Auckland plantsman, Terry Hatch. Years ago, he gave Mark a tray of germinating seedlings which were reputedly from wild gathered seed. Mark had tried growing Higos earlier but without success. They are not a species, but a group of Japanese iris bred extensively over 500 years in the quest for the single perfect bloom to bring indoors, in that wonderful higos-2pared-back style perfected in Japan. The requirements of a garden plant are very different and those highly refined hybrids did not perform. The seedlings from Terry – about 700 of them in the end – gave us a huge range in colour, size and style and they have settled in most satisfyingly by the stream. By this I mean they are performing very well year after year, with no attention at all but without any indication of becoming a weed. I tried some in a perennial border and they grew and flowered well, but their leaves are very long and tend to swamp other plants in the months before they go dormant.

Mark's Louisiana seedlings

Mark’s Louisiana seedlings

Our water iris are something of a United Nations when we add in the Louisianas. Indeed, these do originate from that American state though, like the Higos, they are not a pure species but a group. There are at least five different species of iris native to Louisiana and it is likely that what we are growing are hybrids. They have been settled in down by the stream for many years now but we only have a few different ones. Inspired by the success of the Higo seedlings we got from Terry Hatch, Mark has been experimenting with raising Louisianas from seed to extend the range of flower colour and size and the results have given us more to plant out in the ponds on the other side of our garden, in the area we call the North Garden.

higosWhat we love about the water iris is the contribution they make to a softer-edged, naturalistic style of gardening which we increasingly favour. A return to a more romantic garden style. It took my breath away last December. I am looking forward to a repeat this month.


abbie005First published in the December issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

About a meadow. An update.

The new meadow look in our park - long grass and mown paths

The new meadow look in our park – long grass and mown paths

Wildflower meadows sound so delightfully romantic and evocative. And they can be in practice, but there is not just one way of achieving this.

When we talk about ‘wildflowers’ in New Zealand gardening, we are not talking about our own native wildflowers. They are native to somewhere but not here. Most people think of mixes of cornflowers, simple poppies, nigella, cosmos, maybe Queen Anne’s lace and the like. What are sold as wildflowers here are generally a mix of flowering annuals, though not the highly-bred ones that are used for potted colour and bedding plants. You can call it gardening because it is generally necessary to cultivate the soil, eliminate at least some of weed regrowth which will swamp the chosen annuals, plant the seeds and water them in. Merely broadcasting them on poor ground is rarely successful. These sowings of mixed annuals are usually disappointing in the second year because the influx of weeds and grass will swamp out most of the plants that have managed to seed down and the effect is very different. So it is gardening with annual flowering plants in its simplest form with next to no hard landscaping. It is also best suited to drier climates without the strong grass growth we get here and not prone to torrential downpours which will flatten these gentle, elongated plants. Charming though areas of mixed annuals sown in this way can be, it is not for us. And I would describe it as gardening with annuals, not a wildflower meadow or a wildflower garden.

Lots of Primula helodoxa in our meadow at this time of year

Lots of Primula helodoxa in our meadow at this time of year

Our interest starts with meadows now. This presupposes a heavy presence of grass and many plants that are deemed weeds in more cultivated areas. Why meadows? Four reasons:

  • Meadows make a hugely greater contribution to natural ecosystems than mown grass. They provide food for bees, butterflies and other insects while offering cover to the smaller creatures of the natural world.
  • We are seriously discussing and experimenting with techniques of lower input gardening where possible. Mark has become increasingly concerned at our heavy reliance on the internal combustion engine to maintain our garden – the lawnmower, weed-eater, leaf blower, hedge trimmer, rotary hoe and more. We have already phased out most spraying and fertiliser use – preferring to use our own compost – so the run-off from our property will be neither toxic nor high in nitrogen. Next up was to consider ways to significantly reduce our usage of petrol powered engines.
  • We are mindful that we have a large garden managed by just three of us. Because we have no plans to retire off the property, we need to ensure that we can maintain the garden to the standard we want into the future as we age. This is another reason for finding ways that are more sustainable in the long term.
  • We like the simplicity of meadows, the romanticism and the natural feel. We wanted to see if we could manage it in our garden.
Higo iris and primula are looking pretty this week

Higo iris and primula are looking pretty this week

We closed the garden to the public three years ago and immediately started experimenting in the area we call the park. With its variable terrain and a stream flowing through, this area was originally planted by Mark’s father, solely in trees and shrubs, and it covers about 4 acres. A small flock of sheep kept the grass down and most weeds at bay. When we bought the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers (a Walker mower) that could cope with all the steep slopes, we banished the sheep, removed the fencing and started mowing the park on a regular basis. The areas that couldn’t be mown were kept down with the weed-eater. Finally, Mark could start some underplanting.

img_3130Now we have long grass with mown paths through it. After three years, there is increasing diversity in the plants moving in. Many are commonly seen as weeds and the whole debate about weeds needs more attention another time. Not just buttercups, daisies and dandelions, though we have those in abundance. We also have Herb Robert moving in (Geranium robertianum), clover pink and clover white, foxgloves, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Mark’s stinking billy-goat weed (a stachys), montbretia and more. I am not keen on the docks or thistles, so I try and dig those out. Mark is particularly pleased that we had a lot more brown top in the existing grass mix than he had thought because it has beautiful silky seedheads that wave in the lightest of breezes.

To these ‘volunteers’ (or genuine wildflowers that have made their way of their own accord), we add our own enhancements – primulas beside the stream, along with a range of other marginal plants and irises. Even sarracenia and a few orchids (the dactylorhiza orchids work though most of the disas died out). The Higo iris are coming into bloom and what a delight they are. In autumn and spring we have bulbs and we no longer have to worry about mowing off the foliage too early.

The placing of mown paths throughout has been successful, giving a contrast between the walking areas and the natural meadow, though it helps to have Mark’s good visual instinct to get the form of the paths sorted from early on so that they meander gracefully. At my request, these were widened to be two mower widths across – a single width looked a bit mean and perfunctory.

The Walker mower

The Walker mower

New sickle bar mower

New sickle bar mower

We mow everything once a year in autumn and I have to admit this involved the purchase of a new internal combustion engine – the sickle bar mower. The lovely ride-on Walker was never designed for the mowing of the meadow, being better on grass that is kept consistently shorter. The sickle bar emulates the motion of an old-fashioned sickle and is designed to cope with this sort of situation. We do not follow the British wisdom of removing all the hay to keep fertility low. It is not practical in our situation and our meadow is a year-round affair because of our mild climate where plants keep growing even through winter.

Going into our fourth year, we are saying ‘so far, so good’. It is not for everyone, but we love the look. If we are still continuing the park as a managed meadow in another five years, we will then be willing to announce that it has been successful for us. The mid-term report is that we have achieved a meadow and it is certainly meeting our four reasons for starting the experiment.

A treasured memory - our second daughter in a dry climate flowery meadow in the Nelson area around 1994

A treasured memory – our second daughter in a dry climate flowery field in the Nelson area around 1994

Postscript: Ken Thompson in The Sceptical Gardener writes about real meadows and I quote just a brief excerpt there: “it actually is a meadow in the sense of an area of perennial grass and wildflowers, managed by annual cutting.” He goes on to discuss what he calls the ‘annual meadow’ – drifts of annuals. “The problem is that ‘annual meadows’, whatever they are, are not meadows; they don’t look like meadows, and nor are they managed by meadows.”

He draws on a British garden writer and TV presenter about poppies. “Nigel Colborn reports that a visitor to his garden asked why his meadow had not wild poppies in it. Nigel had to explain, kindly and tactfully I’m sure, that no meadow since the dawn of time has had poppies in it, and that poppies belong in cornfields.”

Thompson also has an interesting chapter about the common lore that wildflowers do better in areas of low fertility. This is a book to put on Christmas present lists, as I said in my review earlier.

Tikorangi Notes – of earthquakes, tree ferns and a meadow experiment

I think the Americans will like our sino nuttallii rhododendrons in bloom (and we won't mention their new president)

I think the Americans will like our sino nuttallii rhododendrons in bloom (and we won’t mention their new president)

It has been a discombobulating week. For overseas readers, I should explain it started with another major earthquake. Despite the quake being centred on the east coast of the South Island (we are the west coast of the North Island), it was the worst one Mark and I have ever felt. And I say that as inhabitants of what are sometimes called the shaky isles where we have all been raised with advice and practice at school on how to behave in an earthquake. Even here, the rocking ground was enough to significantly drop the water level in the swimming pool and to have the water sloshing out of the upstairs toilet cistern. Fortunately, after the Christchurch earthquakes, we had secured our tall pieces of furniture and bookcases.

Further south the damage has been huge and the enormity of this event is still being revealed. It is major and will take years to repair – damaged townships and settlements but also the main trunk road and rail services are completely out of commission and it is difficult to see how and when repairs will be possible. Being a sparsely populated area of this country, there is very little in the way of alternative routes available. Our hearts go out to the people so badly affected.

Closer to home, we have been sprucing up for a small American tour due on Wednesday. This is the first tour we have accepted since we closed the garden three years ago and there is nothing like knowing you will be hosting an overseas group to focus one’s eyes differently. We will not be raising the topic of their recent presidential elections (I think there may be a huge gap – a chasm, even – between how much of the world views that event and how it is seen internally by too many in the USA, so best avoided).

New shoot on black mamaku

New shoot on black mamaku

I expect they will notice our tree ferns. Here they just seed down and we cut them out (eventually) if they are in the wrong place. I cut all the fronds off the wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa) and the black mamaku (Cyathea medullaris) in preparation for the chainsaw. I have no intention of ever learning to use the chainsaw myself. It terrifies me. It is one job I leave for the men in my life. The new shoots on the denuded trunks are wonderfully decorative – icons, even, of New Zealand design. We also have plenty silver ferns (Cyathea dealbata) popping up around the place.

I think it is a wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa)

I think it is a wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa)

While tree ferns, or pongas as we call them here (pronounced ‘punga’) are closely associated with New Zealand, the most common form grown with care – bordering on reverence, almost – in Europe and the UK is actually an Australian native, Dicksonia antarctica. Visitors from the northern hemisphere are usually in awe of them occurring naturally here and being seen as expendable when they pop up in the wrong place.

Tomorrow morning on Radio Live’s Home and Garden Show, Tony Murrell and I will be discussing meadow gardens. **** Given that these discussions take place between 6.30 and 7.00 in the morning, it is always something of a surprise to me when people comment that they listen. But it is quite liberating to be chatting that early because it gives a certain freedom in these extended conversations which both Tony and I enjoy a great deal. If you are interested in listening later, the link gets posted on both Radio Live’s Facebook page and, I think, their website. Last week we were talking about Piet Oudolf and the new perennials style.

Buttercups and daisies - weeds or a meadow?

Buttercups and daisies – weeds or a meadow?

We are into our fourth spring season of experimenting with letting much of the park develop into a meadow. At this stage, our meadow is a mix of naturally occurring plants with the addition of bulbs, irises and primulas, managed with minimal intervention.  It is a challenging process in terms of how we view weeds. Certainly it is looking very pretty at the moment with carpets of buttercups and daisies and even the dandelions look colourful. I am okay with some pink Herb Robert getting away, also monarda (bergamot or bee balm) but I draw the line at docks. Mark’s particular hate is the plant he refers to as ‘stinking billy goat weed’ but the internet does not appear to agree with him on the name. Also, it is not to be confused with horny goat weed or blue billygoat weed. He is right that it is a stachys and a stinky stachys at that. It is the smell that he hates so we are generally pulling it out. I did a search and the photos seem to correlate with Stachys macrantha. If that is correct, it is a great deal more appreciated overseas than in our park. Maybe a reader can enlighten me whether S. macrantha has a pungent odour when disturbed?

A wheki which still has its old foliage undisturbed

A wheki which still has its old foliage undisturbed

*** Update: No discussion on meadows this morning on Radio Live, due to circumstances beyond everybody’s control. Instead I discussed outdoor furniture with Hamish Dodd. Meadows with Tony Murrell next Sunday at 6.35am.

Hosta Time



Hostas planted with Ranunculus cortusifolius, Chatham Island forget-me-not and meconopsis

Hostas planted with Ranunculus cortusifolius, Chatham Island forget-me-not and meconopsis

November sees hostas looking their very best. We used to grow hostas when we were still running the nursery. From memory, it was in the vicinity of four or five thousand every year, year in and year out, across maybe 35 different varieties. There is not much we don’t know about propagating and growing this plant family in containers. We always sold plants raised by division – not from tissue culture – and earned a reputation for a large and luscious grade.

Growing plants in a garden is different and now that we are gardening full time, we have taken a great deal more interest in their long term performance. Not all hostas are equal. Nor are they quite the low maintenance plant that is often claimed. Once the ground around them starts to compact, it is not uncommon to suddenly realise that a well-established clump has reached the point where it is getting smaller not larger. Smaller clumps which are not thriving may disappear altogether, even though they are in the recommended humus-rich shade. They like cultivated soil and will do better if given better conditions, especially the touchier varieties.

One of Mark's reliable blue seedling hostas

One of Mark’s reliable blue seedling hostas

The one exception has been a run of big blue hostas that Mark raised from seed. These are still handsome, large and fine after maybe two decades with absolutely no attention at all. The same cannot be said of all varieties. Alas, a number of the fancy newer ones are better in pots than the garden.

There is no doubt that hostas are a highly desirable dish on the smorgasbord of slug and snail food. I have seen plants eaten away to almost nothing, particularly in UK gardens where they seem to have a much worse problem than here, though I have been told Auckland snails may rival them. Should I therefore whisper that we don’t seem to have a big problem here? We so rarely use snail bait that neither of us can ever remember where the packet may be. Instead, we have reached an accord with the birds and they carry out constant pest patrols to keep the critters at bay. But if you are resorting to baits, remember that they are a poison, not a fertiliser. You only need two or three pellets per plant and more is not better. If you are not a slug bait fan, I did try the technique of baker’s bran and found that worked. Circle the plant generously with bran. I don’t think it actually kills the slugs and snails but they find it so irresistible they can’t stop eating it. Once in the gut, it swells and they lie around in a bloated fashion til the morning when the birds find them. Think of it as adding protein and fibre to the ornithological diet rather than subjecting them to toxins.

Softer leaves are more vulnerable to critter damage, so if you have an issue, go for the varieties with tough, almost leathery leaves.

Hosta Jade Cascade

Hosta Jade Cascade

When it comes to locating them in the garden, it will be no surprise that we go for mix and match. Hostas love similar conditions to clivias, ferns, some of the primulas, meconopsis, Chatham Island forget-me-not and other plants which we use in damper, cooler situations of semi shade. They are not so keen on deep shade and will turn all green if they don’t get sufficient light. Gardeners in colder climates have more leeway in terms of sunnier positions but the yellows and pale variegations burn in the summer sun here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany gardeners seem to prefer to group their hostas together in a hosta bed. It is not compulsory to plant them this way but if you prefer this look, I will repeat my advice given often to customers back in the days. Don’t be wooed into buying only the showy, variegated ones and bunging them all in together. It is the plainer hostas in single colours, and the variety in leaf form, shape and size that set off the fancy ones and avoid a mishmash. One fancy one to at least three plainer ones is my rule of thumb. These days, our preference lies with the solid coloured ones rather than variegated varieties.

Hands-on gardeners know that big clumps of hostas can be dug and divided in the same way as any other perennial plant. In terms of timing, it is best to do this in winter or early spring in our climate.

Running a mailorder business taught me never to take anything for granted. Hostas are deciduous, a fact that eluded one customer. “I am not happy with my order,” she wrote. “It looks as if there has been a rabbit in the box, eating the foliage. Or if they are deciduous, I don’t want them.”

It is the fresh foliage in spring that is the highlight for this plant family and some varieties will follow up with a showy floral display in shades of white, blue or, most commonly, lilac-purple shades in summer.

Hosta Regal Splendour (front) and Fragrant Blue

Hosta Regal Splendour (front) and Fragrant Blue

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

Garden Lore – when renga renga lilies go bad.

img_3017Our native renga renga lilies are an immensely handy, low maintenance plant for semi shade. However Arthropodium, most commonly A. cirratum, can run into problems. This is particularly evident this spring which may have something to do with the dreary, cool and wet conditions. I saw it out and about while garden visiting around the region last week, most commonly in well established clumps. The unsightly spotting and markings on the foliage looks as if it is a rust but apparently it is not.

I repeat the advice given back in 2010 from a most reliable source, though regrettably these days, it should refer to “the late George Fuller”.

“Esteemed colleague, George Fuller, tells us that it is not a rust that causes orange blotching on renga renga lilies (arthropodium) but in fact a nematode (or wire worm). These critters can build up in a patch over time so if it worries you, it may be necessary to resort to using a systemic insecticide. A systemic insecticide is one that the plant absorbs as opposed to contact insecticides which only kill with a direct hit. The nematode is actually in the plant and it is the same one that attacks chrysanthemums and black currants, answering to the name of afelenchoides ritzemabosi.”

I did a quick net search to see if this is still current advice but after looking a plethora of sites that declare renga rengas to be largely free of pests and diseases, I figured that they hadn’t seen the afflicted plants in Taranaki this year.

Updating for 2016, we are hesitant these days to recommend the routine application of heavy duty systemic insecticide. We don’t know whether a one-off spray will clean up the plants in a single hit or whether repeat applications, maybe even on an ongoing basis, are required. The alternative courses of action are never quite as straightforward of course.

img_6240Because the nematode apparently lives in the leaf, not the soil, it seems unlikely that badly infested plants will grow out of it on their own accord. Firstly, look at the infected plants and note whether they are the oldest, best established clumps in your garden. Also take stock of any plants showing clean foliage or very little damage. Our course would be dig out and dump the worst affected plants. Clean up and dig over the ground and either replant with clean renga renga lilies or an alternative. If you have clean plants in your garden, these can be lifted and divided. It may be that they are not showing damage because they have developed some resistance. Given optimum growing conditions and increased air movement, the plants are likely to respond with vigorous new growth. If you only have a few affected leaves, then cut them off but you can only compost them if you make compost that is hot enough to kill bugs and diseases. Otherwise, you are going to have to remove the foliage well away from the site to prevent re-infecting your new plants.

Whether you take the quick and dirty course of using a spray or the longer and more environmentally friendly course is entirely your choice. If you have a bad infestation, it is likely you will want to do one or the other because the plants can look pretty awful as they are.

Witches’ broom in the graveyard

Witches' broom, sticking out like an unsightly sore thumb

Witches’ broom, sticking out like an unsightly sore thumb

I returned to the New Plymouth graveyard, Te Henui cemetery, that I first visited just over a month ago. After my earlier delight, I wanted to see how it was progressing into a new season. Progressing, it is and I have posted a fuller album of photos on our garden Facebook page. But I was shocked at the extent of the witches’ broom in the flowering cherry trees. I have written about this common mutation on the later flowering prunus before. Some varieties are far worse affected than others and I have been spotting it all around the district but it is disappointing to see it through many of the cemetery trees. A bit of timely intervention would save these pretty trees that bring pleasure to so many. Left to its own devices, the witches’ broom will take over and necessitate the removal of the entire tree.

This pretty scene will be at risk if the witches' broom is not dealt with

This pretty scene will be at risk if the witches’ broom is not dealt with

One hopes that New Plymouth District Council will tend to this during the coming summer (pruning of cherry trees should be done in mid-summer) and not just let it get so bad that the trees are doomed.

Grim austerity where maintenance happens with a lawn mower and weed spray

Grim austerity where maintenance happens with a lawn mower and weed spray

Since my earlier post, I have discovered that She Who Tends the Graveyard is in fact a friend of ours and we had not realised the effort and time she devotes to this task. These days she is joined by two other volunteers and I really hope that the district council appreciate their sterling efforts in making this place special. The contrast between the bare austerity of the returned servicemen’s section (which might even be described as grim) and the floriferous delight of the area where these women tend to the graveyard gardens could not be more stark. It has turned a place of death into a community asset enjoyed by many. Could it perhaps take the award for the prettiest graveyard in the country?

But it is scenes like this that make Te Henui Cemetery a special place

But it is scenes like this that make Te Henui Cemetery a special place



Plant Collector: Calycanthus floridus

Calycanthus floridus in a New Plymouth garden

Calycanthus floridus in a New Plymouth garden

Commonly known as Carolina Allspice, this is the best example I have seen in bloom. We had it here once but dug it out because it was a bit insignificant where it was located. It is better as a border plant than a specimen plant and this particular one shown above was well located beside a steep path, so it could be viewed from both above and alongside.

It is a largish, deciduous shrub from the coastal plains of south eastern USA. The foliage is scented when crushed, variously described as spicy, aromatic or smelling of camphor (which means like Vicks Vapour Rub to me) but I wasn’t going to pick a leaf and test it, given my position as a garden visitor. Nor did I smell the blooms which are reputedly scented though the online references run the gamut from ‘highly scented’ to ‘evening scented’ to the sage advice to buy the plant in bloom because the strength of the scent varies greatly between individual cultivars. I think it likely that most plants in New Zealand will be from a single clone so there may not be choice on this aspect.

It is one of those curiosities that is not commonly seen in gardens here with blooms that are interesting rather than spectacular. It is never going to be as showy as the viburnums that are in bloom right now but pretty much every garden has those whereas only a few will have the calycanthus. For some gardeners – and some garden visitors – the delight lies in something less predictable.

For anybody out and about visiting Taranaki gardens during the festival this week, this fine specimen can be found in Tainui Close, the city garden of Chris Paul and Kevin Wensor. Mark tells me he has another plant of it languishing in his Pile of Neglect – his term for a collection of plants waiting for him to find the right location before he gets around to planting them out.

Viburnums - also flowering now.  I think this one is probably V. plicatum 'Mariesii" or Lanarth.

Viburnums – also flowering now. I think this one is probably V. plicatum ‘Mariesii” or Lanarth.