Change of plan

Verbascum creticum, a tall, large flowered biennial

We have spent a fair amount of time and energy examining meadow gardens and wildflower gardening over the years. It is not something we want to embark on lightly. With our growing conditions, the potential for unleashing a weedy mess is high. But crunch time is coming. What to do with the central court in our new garden? We do not want an actual tennis court. Nor do we want more lawn. We want something naturalistic, ecologically sound, relatively low maintenance and preferably wildly romantic.

Last year, I was still thinking of meadow-style and saved seeds of various large biennials and annuals that we could possibly use – Verbascum creticum, white foxgloves, nigella, even the red poppy. It takes A LOT of seed to sow an area as large as this and it was going to be expensive if we had to buy small packets to make up the chosen mix.

Flagged that plan. I may try it further out in the garden but in a smaller area. In the future. Maybe. This central court is too prominent and too large to experiment with random ‘wildflowers’ (not wild in NZ of course). It HAS to work rather than be experimental and to work in the longer term without creating a maintenance headache.

Dunnett at Trentham

While I would love to try the perennial meadow style pioneered by Nigel Dunnett and the Sheffield Movement (Pictorial Meadows) that so entranced us at Trentham last year, I also know our limits. That work is the result of years of experimentation, learning and analysis by the protagonists and the plant selections are what works in the UK. We would be starting from scratch to find what works well and how to manage it in our very different climate and growing conditions. It may also look rather flat and contrived in a tightly contained garden rather than linking to the wider landscape with natural landform.

A blank canvas of about 450 square metres

This court area is about 15 metres wide and at least 30 metres long. It is a rectangular, formal shape bounded by a low brick retaining wall (still under construction) and the long sides defined by formal plantings of Fairy Magnolia White (to be pleached in due course and clipped hedges of Camellia Fairy Blush. The steps still await construction, as do the large pergolas Mark really (really, really) wants at each end. It is flanked on one side by the new grass garden and on the other by the equally new lily border and the caterpillar garden, all of which I have written about in the last year.

Each plant in its own space in Beth Chatto’s dry garden

The solution lay in what I have referred to as the grass garden. It isn’t really the grass garden that I envisaged at the start. It isn’t even the summer garden we initially called it, though it looks good in summer. It also looks good in spring, different but equally pleasing in autumn and has enough interest to carry it through winter. Basically, it is more an example twin herbaceous borders in a modern style, showing influences from a number of contemporary designers with some debt to Beth Chatto’s dry garden. I add Chatto, because we eventually worked out that one of the aspects that makes her dry garden so charming is that each plant stands in its own space, not jostling for room and melding into its neighbours as in classic herbaceous plantings where one aim is to have no ground space visible.  It is that individual space that not only gives a very different feel – lighter, more spacious, when done with skill –  but also makes maintenance far easier.

Miscanthus in winter in the new borders

There is a school of thought that digging and dividing perennial plants is an unnecessary activity, devised by those who like to make work. And that may be true in some climates and some styles of gardening – an extension of the no-dig garden philosophy, even. One thing I have learned from experience is that if you dig and divide often, it is not a big task to be feared. It is digging over-large plants in hard, compacted soils that is difficult and heavy work. I had to get Lloyd (who does the heavy work here) to dig out the enormous Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ clump that I then cut up with an old hand saw to get about a dozen sizeable pieces. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to such rough treatment but they thrived and looked good all year. They are still standing, erect and pale and have not been beaten down or fallen apart in heavy rain and wind, as well-established clumps often do.

This week, I plan to dig and divide all the clumps of large grasses that I planted at this time last year. I shall report further if it turns out to be harder than I expect it to be, but the ground is still well cultivated and friable and I am not anticipating a killer task. I have promised some divisions to a colleague but there will be A LOT of miscanthus, Stipa gigantea and Calamgrostris ‘Karl Foerster’, along with our native Anemanthele lessoniana, toetoe (now an austroderia but formerly known as a cortaderia) and a large but graceful brown tussock that we have yet to find the name of. And there is the solution for the new court garden.

An immersive experience at Bury Court

It is to be the new grass garden, drawing on lessons learned from both Piet Oudolf and Christopher Bradley-Hole. In that large, geometric area, confined by a hard-edged boundary, I envisage an immersive experience – wandering informal paths through plantings that are shoulder high (at least when in flower), predominantly grasses. Waves of grasses (the Oudolf influence) in a limited selection. With just a few tall Verbascum creticum and foxgloves in white and pale apricot (we have both a-plenty) and maybe Ammi majus and some white daisy type plant which I have yet to find.  But the big grasses will be the feature. So more ‘New Perennials’, or modern prairie on steroids than meadow.

It will take a year or two to build up enough plants to fill the area. But now that I have a plan, I am impatient to get started. The first task will be to clear the area of grass and weeds and then rotary hoe it. It will happen. It just won’t be instant.

Postscript: I have zero intention of lifting these grasses in the court garden every year. They will be planted and left,  with maybe a cut around the outside from time to time to reduce the spread.

Ammi majus





Garden lore: protecting arms

Puttees. But for lower arms. We have large swathes of bromeliads that need an occasional clean out of accumulated debris and dead foliage. Many bromeliads have finely prickled edges that can rip arms to shreds and will find the small gap between glove and long sleeves. These are my DIY solution and are equally useful for reaching into many prickly or scratchy plants.

They are just the sleeves from a denim shirt cut to size and elasticised top and bottom and I keep them to hand in my gardening basket. While I find my shredded arms heal remarkably quickly (the reddening and discomfort will disappear overnight if I coat them in that potent  liniment still made by Rawleighs and sold as antiseptic salve), I am mindful that as we age and skin thins, it may be wiser to try and avoid tempting fate. Gardens host all sorts of fungi and bacteria which may not be good on broken skin. I have heard horror stories over the years about bad infections from wounds caused by rose thorns.

The colour match between my puttees and the pair of gardening gloves was mere serendipity.

Look at all those little hooks on the margins of the bromeliad leaves

Suddenly it’s spring

We have entered the season of floral skypaper

It would be churlish to complain too much about our winters here. Common wisdom divides the months of the year into four seasons so winter is June, July and August. But spring came this week. Sunny, calm, blue skies and sunshine with the temperature yesterday reaching 18° – clearly it is time I put away my merino thermals and found the mid-season tee shirts. The dreary rains of winter are but a memory at the moment (though they will return in spring for we are a high rainfall climate). Canberra had us thinking that a dry climate is much easier to live in but a high sunshine, high rainfall climate without extremes of temperature is much easier to garden in.

“Just an unnamed seedling from the breeding programme here,” as we say often

Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, commonly referred to just as Lanarth

I am very sympathetic to those readers sweltering and burning in the northern hemisphere and  grateful not to be there. I am even more grateful to be here where the spring garden has exploded into life. I always say our gardening year starts with the first magnolias to flower. Each year, it feels like a new beginning. Oh, the magnolias! All those views of floral skypaper and big, bold blooms in the landscape. It is beyond glorious and this is why I try and encourage people to grow Proper Trees, not scaled down, dwarfed, shrubby things with scaled down blooms. If space is a problem, go for a narrow, upright tree (fastigiate, is the term) rather than one that promises to stay at two metres high (which it won’t, unless it is the white stellata). Aside from the soft pink M. campbellii, the dominant colours of the first varieties to flower in the season are red and purple. Believe me, looking at the first light of morning shining through these rich colours is like a stained glass window.

The yellow camellias are flowering again. This is C. nitidissima

Lachenalia aloides and an early flowering scilla that I once sorted out a species name for but have since forgotten where I recorded it…

It is not just the magnolias. While the snowdrops are already passing over (their season is but a short delight here), we have masses of different narcissi flowering all over the place, along with lachenalias, leucojums, early scillas and late cyclamen. The camellias are blooming, along with the big-leafed rhododendrons like macabeanum and giganteum. Every day, I go out and find something else to delight.

A tui in Prunus campanulata ‘Felix Jury’

I had an idea that I would pick a branch of each of the Prunus campanulata (Taiwanese cherries) currently flowering to show the range of colours and flower size. We have somewhere over a dozen in bloom at the moment and more still opening, with a garden full of tui and bees as a result. So I headed out with my flower basket and snips, channelling my very late mother in law who left the basket… and gave up. Maybe next year. The problem, I realised quickly, is that I would need a ladder. Too many are flowering well above my reach. And as the trees are spread far and wide through the garden, it is a task that would be better carried out with obliging ladder carrier. But that is the thing about long term gardening: there is always next year.

Finally, an animal story. When we first adopted poor, unloved Spikey dog in 2009, we worried that he felt the cold badly. His coat was very thin – at least compared to the Shetland sheep dog we also had at the time – and he had not one ounce of body fat. Daughter made him a coat of many colours. I put it on him one chilly morn and Mark laughed at the ridiculous sight. Spike then hurtled down the avenue gardens after a rabbit and reappeared without his coat. Suggestions ranged from him being too embarrassed to be seen in the coat to Mark’s idea that he had regifted it to a needy rabbit family. Years passed and we never found the Joseph coat – until this week. It is a little brittle after 8 or 9 years in the open but a triumph to the resilience of yarn blends. One minute – that is how much wear that coat had.

In the meantime, he had been gifted a genuine Harrods coat and I had bought him a little number that made him look like the canine version of Julian Clary. But we always knew that as a bogan, freewheeling dog, he would have preferred a black vinyl number with chrome studs. These days he is over 14, stone deaf with a heart condition and possibly some level of dementia so he has passed the winter days sleeping in his bed by the fire. Yesterday, with spring in the air, he came out of hibernation and could even have been described as frolicking as he accompanied us around the garden with visiting friends. There may be life in the old dog yet, if he doesn’t get taken out by a heart attack.

Magnolia campbellii, looking more like a painting at maximum zoom with the snow of the distant mountain behind

Different light. Different colours. Canberra in mid winter.

Late afternoon by Lake Burley Griffin

One of the interesting things about travelling is the different light. Canberra in mid winter is very, very different to Tikorangi in mid winter. A special family event saw us convening in that city a couple of weeks ago.

Plenty of eucalypts

Canberra, being inland Australia, has what I recall from my days of school geography as ‘a continental climate’. In mid winter, it is cold and dry. In mid summer, it is hot and dry. Much colder, much hotter and very much drier than our verdant climate at home. And in my many visits there since our eldest daughter took up residence about 15 years ago, I have never experienced wind. In winter, this is just as well because, when daytime temperatures are often only single digit (celsius), a wind would make the cold intolerably bitter.

You can see how much colder it is by the daughter’s Crassula ovata (commonly called the jade plant or money tree). She forgot to cover it and hopes it will survive. We never have to worry about that sort of thing and it grows quite happily outdoors, all year round.

In my mind, I see Canberra as being dominated by muted golden colours. This is largely on account of it being such a dry climate. This is the entry to a major sculptural installation at the National Art Gallery. I never tire going to experience American artist, James Turrell’s Skyspace ‘Within without’ each time I visit and thought I had shared it before but it must have been just on the garden Facebook page instead.


It is an astonishing piece, all angles, flat planes and light and shade. Truly glorious. We had hoped to catch the last day of the Cartier jewellery exhibition in the gallery but so did everybody else and the prospect of queuing for over an hour just to get in did not seem appealing. New Zealanders are not used to queuing.

This is the entry lane to Skyspace and probably as close as you will get to a group shot of the family on this public site. It is minus me as photographer and minus the only representative of the next generation whose second birthday we had gathered to celebrate.

Public architecture and landscape in Australia is on a more lavish scale than we tend to have in New Zealand – a sign of a larger and wealthier economy. The parliamentary precinct houses many other facilities as well and goes well beyond utility provision of services to enable federal government to operate. I hadn’t see this particular water feature before.

 This is the wider context – a staircase waterfall, designed to be safe for the public while capturing light, movement and gentle sound in what is an arid environment.

What Canberra may lack in terms of plant appeal in mid winter, it makes up for with its birds. Flocks of birds, in this case a convention of king parrots on the road side in our daughter’s quiet street. Daughter tells us that the red head on the front bird is a sign that it is the only mature male amongst the 20 or 30 juveniles in that group. New Zealand birds are generally restrained in colour whereas Australia has many birds that are bold, brash and colourful.

We rarely see the muted, mystical light of a winter morn in Canberra. This may be because we have far more wind – a disturbed westerly air pattern, as Mark refers to it. This is just a suburban street scene – eucalypts, eucalypts and more gum trees. But no koalas on these ones. There are more than 700 different eucalyptus species, most of which are native to Australia. I once offered to buy the daughter a book on them so she could start to learn the different ones but she did not take up my offer.

We came home to a place where the dominant colours are green, green and more green but with plenty of highlights of pinks, reds, yellows and all the colours of late winter breaking into spring. It is very different. My next post is likely to be ‘And suddenly it’s spring’. For this week, we have left winter behind here.

A visit to Sydney Botanic Gardens

A campanulata hybrid in full bloom at Sydney Botanic Gardens. Our season has also started at Tikorangi.

On our recent visit to Australia, we made a return visit to Sydney Botanic Gardens. We are not city people so tend to seek out green spaces and gardens. We did at least get to grips with the public transport system to get around. This is greatly preferable to driving and you do not need the details of the dramas on the final Monday morning when it came to returning the rental car we had hired to drive to Canberra. Let it just be said that the internet and sat nav are decidedly less than perfect when it comes to inner city driving and we spent a truly traumatic 90 minutes trying desperately to find the rental car business which saw us taking motorway links first to the airport and then across the Harbour Bridge! Fortunately our flight was delayed several hours which was about the only blessing on an otherwise stressful morning. Public transport is a breeze by comparison and amazingly cheap in Sydney. Buy a transport card at one of the airport shops when you arrive, is my advice.

Lytocaryum weddellianum

Sydney Botanic Gardens are not huge compared to others we have visited but immaculate, focused on plants they can grow well and in a superb, inner city location by the harbour. It is a lovely place to spend a few hours. It is not a botanic garden that aims to be all things to all people with a comprehensive collection of everything that can be grown. I found on an earlier visit that they don’t appear to do deciduous magnolias. But the palm collection is superb. My knowledge of palms is perfunctory at best but Mark was terribly impressed and browsed through, looking at more mature specimens of ones he has planted here. I was slightly alarmed at the size of Lytocaryum weddellianum, often referred to as the wedding palm. I have planted a fair number of these through our rimu avenue and they are looking very charming after a few years but my mental image was of a palm that would stay somewhat smaller. Fortunately, they are not likely to grow as large as the Sydney specimen in our temperate climate.

The indoor vertical garden

I failed to photograph the new coffee shop attached to the education centre, which had a curious and not particularly convenient design. But in the education wing was the largest vertical garden I have ever seen. It was indoor, hence the shadows from the struts of the building, and the main attraction in a display about the importance of pollination in nature.

A novelty, but no less charming for that

I did, however, photograph the tri-coloured abutilons threaded through the ground display. Novelties they may be, but they were very cute. If you want to try this at home, you need three small seedlings of a similar size. Plait the flexible trunks and keep them to a single leader each. They will also need a stake. If you are in NZ, I noticed Woodleigh Nursery selling a range of eight different abutilon varieties in a range of reds, orange, purple, yellow and white so you too can try this at home. Start with small plants so that the root systems are also small and you can get the stems close together at the base.

Alcantarea imperialis

I made Mark pose beside the Alcantarea imperialis to give some sense of scale. These are widely available in NZ and much loved by northern landscapers but our efforts with them failed. We must try again because they are very showy and worth growing.

Aechmea blanchetiana

I was less convinced by the yellow Aechmea blanchetiana but this may be because I have seen bromeliads grown in more marginal conditions showing this colouring as a result of deep stress. To me they look as though they are starved though, being bromeliads, this will not be the case. They were certainly eye-catching.

Aerial roots on Ficus macrophylla

Trees feature throughout the garden. There is nothing rare about the Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). It is an Australian native and grown widely, despite the inclination of the roots to break paving and to break drains. I just liked the fine example of aerial roots reaching to the ground.

More aerial roots on Monstera deliciosa

Similar aerial roots were evident on the Monstera deliciosa and I admit I was grateful that our somewhat rampant plants of this at home are not quite as determinedly rampant as they appear to be in a hotter climate like Sydney.

Araucaria cunninghamii

I showed the Sydney Botanic specimens of the Wollemi pine last week. I was also taken by another tree native to New South Wales, Queensland and New Guinea – the Araucaria cunninghamii or hoop pine. It must have been at least 25 metres tall and those little tufty pom poms will be its natural form. Nobody has been up an extension ladder cloud pruning it.

The stand of flowering cherries in full bloom drew the crowds and proved yet again that humans like colour and blooms, preferably in abundance. It is a locally bred hybrid, a cross between the wild cherry Prunus avium and Prunus campanulata, named ‘Yvonne Matthies’. I have no idea if it is available in NZ and, of more importance, whether it is sterile or not. I imagine with all their bats and birds in Australia, they are not so keen on potential weed cherries that are spread by birds.

I particularly appreciated the tour group with the three women who, by pure chance, toned so perfectly with the blossom. They were equally delighted and took many (many, many) photos.

Finally, the sign in each toilet cubicle spoke volumes about the sheer number of overseas visitors these gardens must attract. Toilet etiquette and requirements vary throughout the world. A Twitter friend was more worried by the fact that the roll of toilet paper is depicted round the wrong way. it should be unrolling from the top, not from underneath. That is all I will say on this matter.

A day in the life of the magnolia and te maunga

I rushed out at 7.40am on Monday because the day had dawned sunny, clear and calm and I thought the mountain should be in view. We only have one really good view from the garden and at this time of the year, Magnolia campbellii is in bloom in our park. It being just past mid winter here and the subject being a mountain, it is more often shrouded in cloud. We are inclined to get apologetic about this in Taranaki but I remember driving round the South Island with our son some years ago. We never once saw the Southern Alps and that was down the east coast and up the west coast in January. Mountains attract cloud which is all the more reason to celebrate the winter view when it is revealed.

This is 15 minutes later at 7.55am when the sun has risen. It is Mount Taranaki, more commonly referred to by locals simply as the mountain, or te maunga in Maori (or indeed, te mounga in the local dialect). Or maybe the brother of the more famous Fuji. (I still have Barbara Trapido’s ‘Brother of the More Famous Jack’ in my bookcase). It is an active volcanic cone standing in splendid isolation surrounded by a ring plain and bounded by the coast for maybe 200°  of its circumference.

Thirty five minutes later at 8.30am and this is as clear as we can ever see it. With bonus bird. Te maunga is somewhere between 35 and 40 km away from us, the magnolia is in our park so these shots are right at the limit of my camera zoom and my ability to get both the tree and the peak in relatively equal focus.

By 10 am, the cloud is starting to roll in on the lower slopes.

At 10.45 am I expected to lose the sight within the next few minutes.

But it was still visible at 11.50 am and looking as beautiful as I have ever seen it. I have not used any filters or enhancements on these photos.

But gone from view by mid afternoon. I liked the Facebook comment that the mountain is always shining; it is just the rain (and cloud) that gets in the way of us seeing it. The magnolia is the unusual pink form of M. campbellii known as the Quaker Mason form. Because this was put into circulation so early in this country, we tend to regard pink as the dominant colour in the campbelliis but white is far more common in the wild and therefore in cultivation internationally. I have written about this M. campbellii in earlier posts. It is always the first magnolia to bloom for us each season and is really only suited to milder climates where those early blooms will not get taken out by frosts.

While we struggle here at times with the unacceptably high impact of the fossil fuel industry (Tikorangi Gaslands, anyone?), it is scenes like the magnolia and te maunga that keep us anchored to this piece of land both physically and spiritually.

Our pink Magnolia campbellii

Not just a fossil after all – the wollemi pine.

Our gifted wollemi

We were enormously touched when friends gave us their wollemi pine to plant in our park, where it has every chance to reach maturity. They had bought one of the first NZ releases of this endangered Australian plant – at a pretty hefty price tag of several hundred dollars – but were relocating from a large country property to a smaller town section and the wollemi would have been highly threatened by future property owners or neighbours, had they planted it in suburbia. In the longer term, it has the potential to reach 40 metres in height. It was a gift of love when they brought it out to us because it was a tree that meant a great deal to them and one that we were honoured to receive.

The wollemi – botanically Wollemia nobilis – is an ancient tree, dating back to the Jurassic period of dinosaurs. Yet it was not even discovered until 1994, when observant bushwalker, David Noble, came across a plant he didn’t recognise in a relatively remote canyon in the Wollemi National Park, a mere 150 kilometres from Sydney. Until then, it had only been seen in fossil form and it was thought to have died out, maybe millions of years ago.

A multi branched wollemi at Sydney Botanic Gardens last week

It is referred to as a pine and in time it produces cones but it has been declared a single species within a genus all of its own. So nobilis is the species. One step up the botanical nomenclature tree is the genus and this plant is so unique it was a given a genus of its own which is the wollemia part of the name. Only on the third step do we start to place its relatives and they are not pine trees (which are Pinaceae); it is Araucariacea which puts it in the same family as monkey puzzle trees and our native kauri. You have to go another step up to the order of Pinales before you get the botanical intersection with pines.

To the layperson, it looks closer to the podocarps – of the Podocarpus macrophyllus type – although they are in the same Pinales order referred to above so no more closely related to the wollemi than the pines are.

The wollemi at the Australian National Arboretum is already mature enough to bear cones

I mention this because it leads me to the story of an old rogue we knew (now deceased) who never felt obliged to follow the law when it came to plant imports. He turned up here triumphantly one day, totally unasked, bearing cuttings that he declared were the wollemi – purloined from the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, from memory. I had seen one of the earliest wollemi plants in the Canberra Botanical Gardens locked in a cage which was an interesting indicator of its perceived value. Mark was sure that the stolen cuttings were in fact a podocarp and to this day, we wonder whether the Melbourne garden staff named one of the podocarps as a wollemi to fool people such as the old rogue who shall remain nameless. If so, it worked.

The Canberra wollemi again – it was home to a rather large, showy, orange beetle which we do not have in NZ, I think.

The story of the discovery is interesting, as is the botany of this ancient plant (and its adaptability and very survival). But also the control of propagation, marketing and sales is remarkable. Getting it into wide circulation is one method of ensuring its continued survival. Intensive searching has led to the identification of fewer than 100 adult plants in a very limited natural habitat which makes it extremely vulnerable in the wild. Its original location remains a tightly guarded secret to protect the remaining trees. With the spread of kauri dieback (Phytophthora agathidicida) in this country where a main disease vector is human footwear, this seems a wise move. I have no idea who controlled the propagation (a lot of it is through tissue culture), distribution and marketing of the wollemi pine but it has been interesting to view from afar. There was a heavy emphasis from the start on “telling the story”, as is oft said, and the pricing has always been high which conferred considerable status on this unique plant. Especially considering it is not instantly appealing as a small plant and it is going to make a forest giant. It was the first new plant species that we were aware of being imported into New Zealand when our borders all but closed down to new plant imports. The fee for risk assessment at the time was around $65 000 and, from memory, it was a Christchurch institution that came up with that money to get it into the country legally. No individual or plant nursery is likely to come up with that sum for a single plant.

We will watch our precious plant grow over our lifetime. The well-established specimens in both the National Arboretum in Canberra and Sydney Botanic Gardens both promise that it will mature into an interesting character plant to match its interesting back story.

This is the Sydney wollemi again, viewed from the other side. I didn’t even register the bedding plants because I was looking at the sculpture.

It is clearly a sculpture with its own history, although I personally have no knowledge of the work of Andrew Fleischmann.

I was completely unconvinced that the addition of the camellias enhanced the sculpture, I am afraid. With bedding plants below, it smacked more of the descent of what I call “naffdom” rendering it merely sentimental. Or naff.

As a postscript, a reader has just sent me the following photo of her wollemi which she was thrilled to be given as a birthday present. This one is growing in the Dartmoor area of south east England. Just as the metasequoia was rapidly dispersed throughout the world after its rediscovery by plant hunters in China in the 1940s (we have an early one from that collection in our park), so too is the wollemi becoming a significant tree around the world.