Feathered friends

Would you mess with this cat? Few people ever tried a second time.

Would you mess with this cat? Few people ever tried a second time.

The decision not to replace our last cat – when she shuffled off the mortal coils after 16 long years of cantankerous and unpredictable behaviour – was not taken lightly. Both Mark and I had lived with cats all our lives and were fond of the furry, purry things. But they are killers and we prefer the birds. That decision has certainly had a huge impact on our bird population here. It helps that none of our neighbours have cats and that there has been some control exercised over feral felines. This spring, we are particularly aware of the huge number and variety of birds in residence and feeling that we may have achieved something of a sustainable ecosystem which maintains an all year-round population. Mark’s ongoing efforts to reduce rat numbers by trapping may also have helped.

Our kaka!

Our kaka!

Not even the late Buffy cat could have had an impact on the most exciting arrival this year. It was a kaka – one of our native parrots which is limited to small, defined areas of the country these days, nowhere near here. We had never seen one before. A loud, noisy larrikin it was too, one which enjoyed rarking up the tui, swooping around the place feeding from a variety of sources including the mandarin trees. We were not so impressed at it pulling off fat magnolia buds just to throw around for no clear reason (we did wonder if it was aiming at the tui). After about two months it moved on, perhaps looking for a mate and it has seemed a little quiet here since.

The kereru nest scores about 1/10 for skill are care.

The kereru nest scores about 1/10 for skill and care. Viewed from below. 

Baby kereru in residence

Baby kereru in residence

The kereru – our great, lumbering native wood pigeon of small brain –  are a constant garden presence. They also sit about look decorative, posing almost, as they eat the magnolia and michelia flowers and anything else that takes their fancy. Fortunately we have plenty to share. But I thought that few readers are likely to have seen their nests. These are not creations of great skill and care – more a case of throwing a few twigs together and hoping it lasts long enough for the single baby to mature to flying stage. Sometimes the nests do not last the distance, alas. Mark manoeuvred the ladder into position with some difficulty so I could photograph the rather large baby in residence. I will keep an eye on it to see if I can catch the parents coming in to feed it.

Wax-eyes craft exquisite tiny nests

Wax-eyes craft exquisite tiny nests

What the kereru lack in nest-building skills, the wax-eyes more than make up with their exquisite little creations mere centimetres across. I found this one two days ago in a conifer I was cleaning out (removing the clutter of dead needles improves the look and air circulation enormously). The hatchlings were so tiny that at first I thought they were berries that had fallen into an old nest and my eyes had difficulty focusing on the minute movements that showed they were living. I backed off immediately. Finishing the grooming of the conifer will have to wait. Two days later, today, I checked again and the babies are now looking up with their mouths open, waiting to be fed.

Trapped on the inside - Californian quail

Trapped on the inside – Californian quail

We would not have the mob of quail that have built up, had we kept a cat. They spend most of their time on the ground and they usually nest at ground level, then lead their babies around from the earliest stage when they still look like little feathered bumblebees, long before they are big enough to fly. I could, however, have done without the two who wandered into my office one night when the door had been left open by mistake and who then could not work out how to exit.

Agitated young pukeko

Agitated young pukeko

I haven’t even mentioned the pair of white-faced herons currently nesting in the Pinus muricata yet but neither have I been around with my camera at the right time to photograph them entering or leaving the nest which is maybe 30 metres up.  We are hoping that the cretinous man who shot two white-faced herons in the area because they were stealing his goldfish (!!!!) is now too old to still be wielding a gun. I can, however, give you the young pukeko separated from its parents down in the North Garden – and very agitated they all were by my presence there with the dog. These native swamp hens that rarely fly far are wonderful exemplars of survival and adaptability and therefore so common that they are taken for granted and never given the status of their highly endangered cousins, the takahe.

One of the bonuses of having a garden filled with birdlife is that we do not have much of a problem with slugs and snails. As far as we are concerned, good gardening is about establishing good eco-systems as much as it is about pretty flowers.

We once had a much-loved ginger cat called Moomintroll (or ‘The Troll’ for short). He lived to a ripe old aged despite two broken legs in kittenhood, the second requiring amputation. From this misfortune, I learned that three legged cats are good rodent catchers but can’t get the elevation to catch birds. I did wonder about putting a standing order with the local SPCA for a three-legged cat but there is a problem. All our cats have always been ginger, male or female. As far as I am concerned, all cats should therefore be ginger and a standing order for a three-legged ginger moggy who is confident living with dogs might be altogether too specific. We will stick with the birds.

The handsome kereru, our native wood pigeon

The handsome kereru, our native wood pigeon

The season of the clivia

img_5606Mid spring brings us vibrant clivias in bloom. The ”contemporary” or “landscaped” look is to block plant in a single colour so you may have a swathe of orange clivias with the yellow ones segregated in a different area. This is not our style, in a garden where we strive for far more of a naturalistic, woodland look – “enhanced nature” seems to be the latest descriptor for this style though it is not a term you are likely to see me using often. We like to blend our plantings and combine the clivias with ferns, astelias, bromeliads and any and all of the other plants we use as the understorey in our shady areas.

029-4This completely confused a self-described Auckland landscaper I once took around the garden. This must have been back in the 1990s when ambitious but unqualified young people who, in a previous generation would likely have done an apprenticeship, discovered they could earn more money by dispensing advice and services to the growing wealthy of our largest city. He patronised me all the way around the garden – landscapers, you understand, rated themselves further up the social scale than mere gardeners – and at the end pronounced his surprise that we didn’t grow any clivias. I may have a been a little tart when I pointed out he just hadn’t noticed them, for they are there in abundance.

Clivias are one of those plants that attracts aficionados and there is a club dedicated to this passion . I am not sure what these people are called – cliviaphiles (in the manner of snowdrop nuts who are called galanthophiles?) or would they be the less classy cliviaholics? Whatever, it is in part these clivia enthusiasts who are bringing us the expanded range, particularly in colour.

019-2The soft yellows are still a recent introduction but already widely grown, readily available and making a huge contribution in gardens. Extending the colours into peach tones is well underway and of late the combination of white and green in clivias represents another development. One can, when all is said and done, have too much orange in the garden (NABOC syndrome – Not Another Bloody Orange Clivia) whereas the option of other, softer shades can bring welcome variety and interest. If you covet red clivias, you need to be aware that they open orange and age to red. Do not be like the gardener I heard of who bought a swag of large red clivia plants at considerable expense. When the first ones opened orange, she dug them all out.

img_5485Considering the easy care nature of clivias, you may wonder why they are often relatively expensive to buy. It is all to do with time because they are slow to get established and to reach flowering size. In these days of instant gratification, most gardeners want plants that will perform and be showy in the garden from day one. In the case of clivias, be prepared to pay because it costs nurseries money to hold slow growing plants much longer to reach saleable size.

Clivias are easy to lift and divide if you have a big enough clump, although it will take a few years for smaller divisions to re-establish and reach flowering size. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of year you do it, though it is advisable to avoid the heat of summer. They are under storey plants in forest or bush so well able to cope with both low light levels and root competition. We can vouch for their ability to grow away even if you just spread the roots out on top of the ground and cover them with a thin layer of soil or even leaf litter. What they won’t take is wet feet or frost. They were not named for Clive of India, as I assumed. Apparently it was for Queen Victoria’s governess, the Duchess of Northumberland whose maiden name was Charlotte Clive. I don’t think she would ever have grown any in a Northumberland garden.

Clivia gardenii

Clivia gardenii

There are only six different species of clivias and some hybrids between these – called inter-specifics  –  but the showiest one that is most commonly seen in gardens is C. miniata. Most of the others have flowers in the form of tubular bells that hang loosely from the stem whereas miniata has bigger heads of clustered flowers in a truss form. If you have clivias in your garden you may have noticed that they set seed quite readily. You will have more success if you pick the ripe seed and sow it in seed trays. It is handy to know that orange and red clivias set red seed whereas yellow clivias set yellow seed. They also cross freely amongst themselves so you will get variation, though not all will be uniformly good.

To the vexing question of whether the pronunciation is cliv-vea or clive-ea, we go with the latter but I have heard NZ enthusiasts use the former.

First published in the October issue of NZ Gardener in more or less the same form (slightly less, in this case).  

Orange seed will flower orange or red, yellow seeds will flower yellow

Orange seed will flower orange or red, yellow seeds will flower yellow

Tikorangi Notes: Sunday October 9, 2016

 I vowed I would complete The Mission of the 78 Azaleas in July.  I am almost there, which is to say I am down to the last two plants needing a home. The trouble with being down to the last two, is that they suddenly take on psychological significance. There are no more sitting in the nursery to draw on so I must make sure that these last two are in The Right Place. I don’t want to suddenly find a spot which I missed that is calling out for a bright spot of colour. It may take a little longer.

img_2427In the meantime, it is The Challenge of the Lytocaryum Weddellianum. This is a very pretty little, feathery palm from Brazil, a close relative of the coconut palm but small. It is sometimes referred to as the wedding palm (presumably because it is favoured in pots as green decoration at wedding receptions?). There are a reasonable number of them sitting out in the nursery that Mark bought as baby plants years ago. It is doing particularly well in the subtropical gardens beneath the rimu trees.

Lytocaryum weddellianum is a bit of an in-house (or in-garden) gag here. Others often give the advice to repeat a plant in a garden to give unity. I have always doubted this because too often it is done with common plants like renga renga lilies (arthropodium) or the tractor seat ligularia (L. reniformis).  I once saw it done with Dahlia Bonne Esperance and I came to the conclusion that all that repetition does is to ensure that your garden all looks the same. Nevertheless, I am threading the lytocaryum through one area on the grounds that if you are going to repeat a plant to gain unity, you might as well do it with class and botanical depth.

img_2406We have a relatively large forest of a giant bamboo – in this case Phyllostachys edulis. The neighbour wishes it was not on the boundary and we are trying to be vigilant this spring and doing a weekly round of jumping the fence to grub out the new shoots that insist on popping up in the farm next door. It is a handsome bamboo and of some use as cut lengths in the garden. It is also edible. Sadly, panda bears have not arrived to take advantage of the food source (further proof that the cargo cult does not work) but I am having another go at cooking the fresh shoots this year. To be honest, the bamboo shoots that you buy in tins taste more of the brine than anything else. And even fresh, they are more textural and a carrier of other flavours (as tofu is) than a taste treat in their own right. But they add variety to our diet and I can see a use for them in stirfries. “Please bring me some bamboo shoots for dinner,” I asked the other night. And he did. The big one is past cooking stage. The trick seems to be to harvest them just as they come through the ground and to prepare the white sections that are below the surface.  I shall slice some, blanch them quickly in boiling water and then freeze them to see if we use them later in the year. The first batch I poached gently in stock before adding to the dinner that night and they were pleasant, if not life-changing.

img_2420The deciduous magnolia season is over, bar Magnolia Serene which is always the last to bloom and is still a picture. So I can now admit that 2016 was not a memorable year. The rain, rain and yet more incessant rain combined with mild temperatures turned many to slush – botrytis, Mark says, on a scale we have not seen before. I really struggled to get good photos. There is always next year when the weather gods may be kinder.

img_2392Now it is bluebell time. It appears that ours are all Spanish bluebells or hybrids. The pink and white variants are a bit of a giveaway. Ken Thompson in The Sceptical Gardener gave me a handy guide to tell the difference between the blue ones – which are English, Spanish or hybrids. I stopped by the site of one of the original houses in Tikorangi where bluebells continue to flower. Mark thought that they are probably the oldest bluebells in Tikorangi so may date back to the early settlers and therefore more likely to be the English bluebell. Nope. Indubitably of Spanish origin too.

But Spanish or English or a mix of the two, a carpet of bluebells is a pretty sight and leads in to a poem written by a friend who stayed with us last week.

img_2377Bluebell Woods

Red Riding Hood haunts the Bluebell Woods

plucking her squelchy bouquet.

Nasturtiums Humpty down the bank

trumpeting and capering on their way.

Celandine tells of golden cups

quaffed by golden kings


But the scarlet poppies alone in the field

have only songs of war to sing.

J F Panting


A morning in the graveyard


I do not make a practice of visiting graveyards and I have never been to New Plymouth’s cemetery before, despite living in the district for over 35 years. But a friend was insistent that I should go and look at the older sections. At this time in spring, it was simply charming. In my very limited experience, graveyards tend to be either of two types – very austere and plain, managed by tight local body regulation with the weedsprayer and lawn mower to hand. Or left to their own devices so that, over time, they progress from neglect with weeds and rank grass to that sense of nature reclaiming aged graves.

img_2164Somebody, or probably several living bodies, must have lavished a lot of love and care on this section of the graveyard over many years. It was so well done and individualised that it did not have the look of institutional management. Nor indeed of relying on family or descendant management of individual graves – though there were some examples of these.

img_2185It was the wide range of plants used, the attention to detail and the many delightful little pictures that were created as a result, the careful colour toning in some areas and the soft-edged maintenance that made me think it was not chance that created these scenes. Many are created as individual small gardens for a specific grave. I could not help but notice that the space of an individual grave back when the 1800s turned into the 1900s was considerably larger than a modern grave; family plots were larger again.


Mark tells me there are some Jurys buried in the graveyard (well, he mentioned his Uncle Les, the camellia breeder, but Jurys are so numerous that I am sure there must be many more). Having seen mature specimens of Jury magnolias felled to make way for the new road bridge at the entry to the cemetery area, it was a surprise to see more recent plantings of Felix’s magnolias scattered through the cemetery – several specimens each of Apollo, Milky Way, Athene and Iolanthe. As he looked at my photos, Mark commented that he felt the Jurys had a fair representation there.







There are small businesses working in the area of grave restoration. I know this because I have been contacted by one who had looked at the Jury family graves in our little, local Tikorangi cemetery. I ascertained that their services were limited to cleaning the headstones and decided that if it really worried us, I could pop along myself with a scrubbing brush and some water with bleach and detergent. In the end, it comes down to personal choice how one wishes the graves of one’s ancestors to look to the public eye, but there is a certain jarring element to the restoration of some graves in the gentle environment of the old cemetery.

img_2222For spring scenes, the cemetery was unsurpassed. I must go again in summer and see if the secret hands have wrought similar magic into the next season.

img_2175If you are on Facebook, I have posted an album of additional photos to our garden page. I took so many and that medium is better for multiple photos.

Looking left, the hanging gardens of New Plymouth

Looking left, the hanging gardens of New Plymouth

Interesting austerity to the right, topped by a kowhai tree

Interesting austerity to the right, under the sparse umbrella of a kowhai tree

A book worth buying – The Sceptical Gardener

img_2087A sign of an interesting book is when you find yourself keeping it to hand so that you can refer to it in numerous conversations. Not a showy book, in this case. There is a not a photograph in sight and the production values are what might be called utility, so it fails to fit the traditional definition of a coffee table book. Perhaps the descriptor of ‘aircraft reading’, or even ‘loo reading’ captures the format – short pieces between about 700 and 1200 words long which can be read in a few minutes. But for the last few weeks it has been sitting close to hand as we discuss many of the points made in its text.

I don’t want to over-state the case; it may not be life-changing. But if you have a curiosity for information backed up by reputable science in an easy reading style, it may appeal. It is a collection of just over 100 columns first published in The Telegraph newspaper in the UK between 2010 and 2015. These are grouped into loose categories – Garden wildlife (neonicotinoids and bees, the correlation between healthy birdlife and house prices plus more), Native and alien plants – and animals, the entertaining Not worth doing (I was quite pleased to see the author in total agreement with what I have written about planting by the moon and he is illuminating on demystifying permaculture and food forests), Growing food, Practical gardening and more.

The author is both a keen gardener and a scientist – a plant ecologist – with an eye for information which is often not brought before the general public. He has the ability to communicate this information with clarity and wit to the lay person. I have come to the conclusion that, as with the best of UK gardening television, UK newspapers are capable of delivering some really thought-provoking garden writing. I wish I could say the same for New Zealand but too often we seem determined to head in the opposite direction and gear our mainstream gardening media towards absolute novices and newbies.

I bought my copy through Book Depository and it was ridiculously cheap at $NZ16.21, delivered to my letter box within a few days.

The Sceptical Gardener by Ken Thompson. Published by Icon Books ISBN 978 178578 038 7

The chainsaw mentality

Sometimes we just want to weep; never more so than when we read stories like this one in our local paper. Too many New Zealanders think that they can extend dominion over everything in their view lines and that it is fair game to cut down or poison trees that “block” that view.  These were trees established on public land, in the harshest of conditions on a coastal reserve. It is, as we say, ‘down the coast from here’ and in possibly the most exposed location we have in Taranaki. But views of the ocean are way more important to some than protection from wind, other people’s rights and the value of established trees.

"Opunake resident Kelly Knadle wants more of a clifftop shelter belt cut back and the area developed to enhance the views" Photo credit: Taranaki Daily News

“Opunake resident Kelly Knadle wants more of a clifftop shelter belt cut back and the area developed to enhance the views” Photo credit: Taranaki Daily News

Indeed, a local resident (who, I note, just happens to live in direct view line from where the trees were cut down) wants more removed. What is even worse is that this man – for the avoidance of doubt, he is a man according to the text – is willing to pose shamelessly as master of the barren view because he is seeking election to a local council. The article says:

He said he had heard that some of the neighbours did not like the increased wind now the trees were gone.

“If you are worried about the wind, go in your house, that’s what houses are for.”

He wants the smaller trees around the pohutukawas cleared along the clifftop so passersby can see the view and the pohutukawas can be seen in bloom, and have seats installed and the coastal walkway extended.

“I want to bring back this cliff area to what it was meant to be originally. It’s neglected….”

Where to begin? With his blithering disregard for his neighbours’ sentiments on this? With his dismissive attitude to the value of trees? Or with his assertion that he wants to return the cliff area to what it was meant to be originally? I don’t think he is talking about its original state pre-European settlement of the area when most of this country was forested or in bush.

The attitude expressed by the Council officer seems eminently reasonable to us. It must be a thankless task trying to keep ANY trees on public land with the chainsaw mentality that is still so alive and strong in this country. I wish we would grow up as a nation and rid ourselves of the pioneer mentality that if it is an established tree, it is fair game to cut it down. Established trees are not disposable commodities to be hacked out on a whim. Trees which have beaten the odds to grow on the most exposed and inhospitable coastline are even more precious.




But where is the vision today? In Canberra. Apparently.

I can tell you that the Melia azedarach at the National Arboretum in Canberra was planted by Doctor Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste in 2010.

I can tell you that the Melia azedarach at the National Arboretum in Canberra was planted by Doctor Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste, in 2010.

I doubt that many people take the time to pause and send a vote of thanks to our forbears who had the vision to create city parks and botanic gardens. Our closest city of New Plymouth has its Pukekura Park, 52 hectares of park and gardens about 5 minutes’ walk from the main street. It dates back to the visionaries of 1880 and provides a green heart to the city. It is loved with a passion by locals and attracts large visitor numbers. Other New Zealand cities have their equivalents but most date back to a similar era. Aside from Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens being established in Manurewa, I can’t think of major new ventures from modern times.

img_0854It was a second visit to the National Arboretum in Canberra that had me thinking along these lines. This enormous project, encompassing 250 hectares, is a response to the devastating bush fires of 2003 which burned out the area. It is a grand vision, still in its infancy, that will create a legacy for generations to come.

Looking over the city from the arboretum

Looking over the city from the arboretum

While some areas can look a little … utility, shall I say, at this early stage and the selection of some tree cultivars to be represented en masse may raise a dendrologist’s eyebrows, the large vision will triumph over such doubts with time. The infrastructure is going in with attention to architecture that will blend with the landscape, an attractive educational area and one of the most delightful children’s play areas I have seen in a long time. Everything appears to be done with a view to sustainable growth in the long term and it is an impressive venture. It has an international flavour with involvement from foreign embassies and heads of state. This is Canberra, after all.

Indubitably Australian at the National Botanic Gardens

Indubitably Australian at the National Botanic Gardens

Canberra also has the National Botanic Gardens which were not officially opened until as late as 1970 although the first small steps to establishing them were taken in the late 1940s. In that harsh climate of hot, dry summers and cold winters which are often dry, they don’t get the same growth rates that we get here and to my eyes, the gardens still look young. I have been to them several times now. Because the focus is entirely on Australian native plants, they have a very different flavour to anything I see elsewhere and I really enjoy that difference, along with seeing new areas being developed within the site. It is indubitably …Australian. As it should be.

Banksia species in abundance at the Botanical Gardens in August

Banksia species in abundance at the Botanical Gardens in August

It made me wonder where our courageous new ventures are here. We generally steer clear of publicly criticising the local money being spent by the Taranaki Regional Council on what are described as the ‘regional gardens’. This amounts to many millions of dollars more than I think most ratepayers realise but it also sniffs of the cargo-cult mentality – build it and the crowds will come. It remains to be seen if that will happen but it seems unlikely in the long term. The problem is that the Council took on three existing gardens, all of which suffer from issues including obscure location, difficult access, off-putting terrain, pretty awful micro climates and somewhat anachronistic gardening visions from times past.

With so much spare money sloshing in the budget, we can’t help but think it was a missed opportunity to create a new vision for future generations, getting the location, micro climate and terrain right from the start. The role of public green spaces is so very important and likely to get more so into the future. It would be good to look to the future and to invest in that, rather than resting on the laurels of the visionaries of the distant past.

Banksia pods in the children's playground at the arboretum

Banksia pods in the children’s playground at the arboretum

and acorn pods

and acorn pods