From scratch – the caterpillar garden

The caterpillar garden has been bringing me much delight this summer.

Starting to lay the area out in 2016 and marking the basket fungus shape

It is a flat area. Mark had to get up the ladder to get a view

Basket fungi

We refer to it as ‘the caterpillar garden’ but we really need to come up with a better name. It is the caterpillar garden because of an episode of BBC Gardeners’ World we watched several years ago. English designer, Tom Stuart-Smith, went into Carol Klein’s garden and clipped her buxus hedge into his trademark, undulating, wavy caterpillar style. That was the starting point for Mark’s vision for this particular area – a central backbone in clipped, undulating caterpillar-style but planted in a small leafed Camellia microphylla rather than utility buxus. He laid it out in pentagon shapes and I wondered about calling it ‘the pentagon garden’ but I would need to wait for a new president of America to go with anything that carried such strong, albeit irrelevant, connotations. Now Mark is wondering about ‘the basket garden’ on account of the basket fungus that guided his layout but that is a bit obscure.

May 2018, a few months after planting. The Podocarpus henkelii in the centre is such a handsome tree that we are keeping it and working around it. The little white flowers are Camellia microphylla in bloom in early autumn.

We both laughed when a Facebook page of Broughton Grange’s parterres came through on Facebook this week. Lo, there was Tom Stuart Smith’s undulating caterpillar hedging, filled with a tapestry of plants. Same, same but different. I think his shapes are hexagons, not pentagons and he has closed each shape rather than opening bays to the side paths as we have. He has gone for a different colour palette too – bright reds and yellows rather than our softer hues of blues, whites and lilac. And he has put the taller plants in a separate border to the side of the parterre rather than having them rising out of the central enclosures as we have. But we feel we are in excellent company with our caterpillar garden. We were a bit surprised that a small snippet of inspiration could see us end up at a similar destination several years later.

Very late spring 2018 – white iberis and Brodiaea ‘Queen Fabiola’ with the blue perennial forget-me-not (Myosotis) in the background

I wondered about appending a plant list to this post at the end, just in case any reader wanted to see what we have used but these things are never that simple. Even mass planting for impact and restricting the selection for each separate enclosure to between one and three different plants, I have kept adding to the plant palette to try and extend the seasonal interest and a quick count came to about fifty different plants so far. So I won’t be listing them. I can tell you that it gets us through three seasons with different plants being a focus but it is never going to be a great mid-winter garden. I would also comment that we could not afford to garden on this scale if we relied on buying the plant material. It takes many (many, indeed) plants to fill such an area of around 200 square metres. We have drawn on plants we already had in the garden, plants we have been given and trialled in Mark’s vegetable and meadow areas and plants we have raised. In fact, while it has taken plenty of time and effort and a lot of thought, the dollar expenditure currently sits at zero. We are quite happy to pay for special plants or ones we need to get us started, but this is not a garden for special plants. We are after mass effects and colour blocks.

The Salvia uliginosa is too floppy to be in an outside bed

This is now a garden filled with life, particularly butterflies and bees

This has been its second summer. It was patchy last year with big gaps. Some of the plants are smaller growing and more compact so take longer to spread and cover the area. This summer, I have felt it is coming together as we hoped. I have just completed the first – and most major –  reworking that is often necessary when the reality doesn’t match the vision. The pink shades had to go. Too pink and detracting from the spectrum of blues and whites. Salvia uliginosa is too tall where I had it and needs to be moved – but placed with care because it does have dangerous, invasive instincts. I am quite happy doing the fine tuning. For me, it is worth the effort.

I love the white Japanese anemones and blue asters currently in bloom

I have high hopes for next year when I think it will all come together as we envisage it. And we may have the paths laid and quite possibly some garden edging to emphasise the curves. I was going to avoid edgings if I could but I think this is a case for gently rusting Corten steel edging defining the lines and keeping the mulch from the paths. Not tanalised timber ply, not in our garden.

It feels as though this garden has taken longer to get to fruition, but what is a few short years in the greater scheme of things?

This was back in 2012 when we emptied out the capillary beds (which had been built around the Podocarpus henkelii 20 years earlier).

In 2014, we cleared and re-contoured the area. Same tree in the centre. Spike, the dog at the front is still with us but distinctly elderly and very deaf these days,

And this week. Filling in colour blocks with plants.

 

New Zealand in shock

I do not think I have a gardening post in me this weekend. Ours is a country in shock but none more so than our Muslim communities and the people of Christchurch. How could this happen in New Zealand? But happen it did and the soul searching going on now reveals that it should not, perhaps, have come as such a shock. The signs were there but nobody took much notice of them. Nobody, that is, except the Muslim communities and other marginalised groups and individuals who face the rising tide of hate in their everyday lives, even in our peaceful land of the long white cloud.

Sometimes I feel the ghost of my mother at my shoulder. She died nearly 20 years ago but I recall her talking of living in London in the lead-up to WW2 and how she and my father were horrified to witness the rising tide of fascism and the inevitability of major war, even as others around them ignored all the signs. It was perhaps more clear-cut then, with those fascist energies predominantly concentrated and unified in the Nazis.  But as I watch the rise and rise and the alt-right, the defence of hate speech (“But… free speech!”), Islamophobia, the extreme ugliness in many quarters enabled by social media, the political dog whistling at such people as potential voters and other political games and strategies that have merely served to strengthen and affirm such outlier views – yes, I feel my mother at my shoulder. Pandora’s box has been opened again and hatred, ignorance and blind prejudice have been unleashed, nowhere more so yesterday than in the Christchurch mosques.

It is not enough to say that this is the not the country we want. In the coming days, weeks, months and years, as the initial shock and horror fades, we must all hold the line that has now been drawn between those motivated by ugliness, hatred, fear and prejudice and those of us who want a kinder, more caring and tolerant world. I stand with our Prime Minister who epitomises kindness and compassion every day, but especially so in the last 24 hours.

It may seem trite, but if people who feel moved to leave flowers in remembrance around the country could remove the plastic wrappings and ribbons on such bouquets, it would mean their flowers could wither and return to the soil rather than having to be picked up and taken to landfill. I remember the tributes to Princess Diana – a sea of plastic and cellophane wrapped flowers and I am now seeing photos of similar floral tributes around our country. Just leave flowers in such situations, without the wrapping accoutrements. Please.

Back from a near death experience – an obscure fig

 

Very curious fruit on Ficus antiarus

The most asked about plant in our garden was Ficus antiarus. I say was because the small tree became collateral damage when a massive pine tree fell over last April. We feared for its long-term survival as all that remained in the ground were some of the longest roots.

Brought down by an enormous falling pine last April. That is the root system, uprooted. 

It took a couple of weeks to clear the area sufficiently to have room to move and then Mark and Lloyd levered up what remained and installed a prop to hold it more or less upright. Mark took a chainsaw to it to remove most of the canopy and the broken branches. He pruned to keep the shape while reducing the stress on the tree by reducing the smaller branches and much of the foliage. Too much leafy growth would mean increased loss of moisture and we hoped it would put its energy into re-establishing the root system over winter. We crossed our fingers.

levered more or less upright, pruned by chainsaw and propped in place last April

Behold the fresh leafy growth now. It is a sight to behold. It set no fruit this year but we didn’t expect it to after such a shock. It appears that it will live on for another few decades. I asked Mark how long the prop would need to remain in place and all he said was that he had no idea so I guess he hasn’t thought about that yet.

Ten months later and we are delighted by all the fresh growth

Mark’s father Felix brought Ficus antiarus back from his one and only intrepid plant-hunting trip – to the highlands of New Guinea in 1957. He thought that in the cooler temperatures of the areas with altitude that he might find interesting plants that would survive back here. He didn’t bring a big haul back but the ficus, Schefflera septulosa and Vireya rhododendron macgregoriae have all stood the test of time.

The ficus has mid to dark green leaves with an interesting rasping texture – not unlike green sandpaper. It is evergreen, unlike most eating figs. What is most remarkable about it is the generous set of tiny figs growing out of bare wood. They start out cream, ageing through orange to red. Birds don’t strip the tree so the fruit must not be very inviting to them. I have nibbled the odd red fruit and they have a faint figgy flavour but not enough to make them an addition to the diet. We just like it as a curiosity at the end of the Avenue Garden.

Before it was knocked down – we are now optimistic it will return to this state.

Covering the ground – our free mulching options

Oh look! I made a little display board.

Mulching is what enables us to maintain our garden to the standard we want, particularly keeping the new herbaceous plantings free of invasive weeds. Being economical gardeners, we don’t ever buy mulch in but rely on the resources we have here. I laid our main options out to photograph them.

Gravel mulch

Mulching with gravel at Wisley

I have seen gravel used at the RHS Wisley Gardens, particularly in the Piet Oudolf borders and the Missouri Meadow. In its favour, it is weed-free and it makes a good seed bed in that managed meadow where seeding down is encouraged. However, it is heavy to handle, expensive and, in a situation with herbaceous plants which need digging and dividing, it is inevitable that a fair amount of it will end up in the soil even if you make efforts to scrape it to the side. I am reluctant to use it and that is a pity because we have a small mountain range of it retrieved from the capillary beds when we dismantled them. Maybe 10 cubic metres of it and that is a lot.

Granulated pine bark is a stable mulch and a neutral dark brown. I doubt that it comes cheap if you are buying it for this purpose. Not only do we have a small mountain range of gravel, we also have what is referred to here as ‘the bark slug’. When we ran the nursery, everything was potted into granulated bark and Mark decreed that the bark was not to be re-used when plants were being re-potted. His position was that the bark potting mix was one of the cheaper inputs overall (he didn’t pay the bills; I was often somewhat shocked at how much the bark bill came to each month at around $750 a truck-load) and that using fresh bark cut down on weed contamination and disease issues. All the used bark went out to the bark heap and as the heap grew, it seemed to take on a life of its own and creep out like a sand slug.

Granulated pine bark – after at least a decade and fresh, but dry

We don’t re-use the old bark as a garden mulch any longer because of the fertiliser bubbles within it. We always used Nutricote as a fertiliser for commercial plants and very good it is too. But, and it is a huge but, the coating on the fertiliser granules remains long after the actual fertiliser has been used. Mark initially rejected the use of the waste bark on paths and gardens because his eye zoomed in immediately to the fertiliser bubble casings within it. Now we are even more concerned that it does not appear to be biodegradable and we don’t want to be spreading a non-biodegradable product through the environment.

This is not a problem that you will have if you buy in bark chip because it won’t have fertiliser added (and not all fertiliser comes with a coating). To the right, is fresh(ish) bark that we still use as a potting mix. To the left is what it looks like after more than a decade in our bark heap. Despite being an organic product, pine bark does not decompose readily.

Commercial chipping at the top, our home chipper below

Next is the woodchip mulch after nearly two years on the garden. It is not my favourite mulch but we were given a large truckload of freshly mulched copper beech branches and leaves and I needed to cover a few hundred square metres of newly planted garden. Beggars can’t be choosers. It was put through a commercial mulcher and is much coarser than we get out of our domestic mulcher machine. It is very light to handle and forms a crust across the surface, discouraging weed growth. I just don’t like the colour – it is pale creamy yellow when it goes on – and because it is so coarse, it takes a long time to mellow out to something more neutral. And I don’t like the coarseness. It looks… utility, which indeed it is.

Our home-generated woodchip, being of a finer texture, discolours far more quickly and is less dominant visually. But it takes a lot of prunings to generate much quantity.

Evidence of nitrogen robbing at the top – plants are sparser and showing a yellow tinge while others have thrived

The advice with woodchip is to be careful to lay it on the top because it robs the soil of nitrogen as it decomposes if it is incorporated into the soil. Behold an example. I did the initial planting of this aster and laid mulch. I must have gone back into the area to add some more plants. Clearly, I was not sufficiently careful to scrape the mulch to one side and some of it was dug in when planting. The somewhat bare area and yellowish tinge to the plants are signs of nitrogen deficiency. I keep telling myself to get out and scatter a bit of blood and bone on the affected plants to combat this but we do not generally add fertiliser to our garden so I haven’t got around to it yet.

Leaf litter mulch

Smaller leaves look tidier

Next up is leaf litter – natural, free, nutritious, enabling a healthy soil ecosystem but untidy for small, tightly maintained areas. The birds will scratch amongst it (which is a sign of a richer soil environment because they are looking for food) and it often needs raking back into place until it builds a good under-layer. I like leaf litter mulch visually but where I am using it is in larger, more naturalistic spaces. It would not be my first choice for small, confined areas. Though the smaller your leaves, the tidier they will appear.

Compost is king

And finally compost – our preferred mulch by a country mile. Because our soils are so friable, we generally add compost as a mulch rather than digging it in around the roots of the plants. The worms will do the work and incorporate it over time. We often choose to put the woodchip and leaf litter through the composting process first. Compost is light to handle, natural in appearance and makes a major contribution to soil and plant health. We make a lot of compost here, putting it through a process that heats up sufficiently to kill off many nasties but even so, we try and avoid putting seed heads and invasive plants on the compost heaps. The problem is that even though we have compost mounds that are turned by tractor, we don’t make enough to compost to meet our mulching needs which is why we sometimes have to go to alternative options.

Our gravel mountain (with a pretty apricot foxglove seeding into it)

Upon reflection, I may have to turn to the gravel mountain to mulch the new grass garden that I plan to plant this autumn. It is about 450 square metres and laying an 8cm mulch across that area is going to take a lot of whatever I use. At least this is a planting that I do not anticipate having to do frequent digging and dividing.

Saving my best for last – Auckland Heroic gardens part 2.

We visited a Mellons Bay garden which had a location and view to die for. It is still very much in development and the owners are making the most of creating a garden space that maximises its remarkable location. It was there that I encountered a grass I had not seen before.

Vetiver grass, not miscanthus

At first I thought it must be a mass planting of miscanthus but no, it is vetiver grass from India, botanically Chrysopogon zizanioides. I learned this from my friend and tour host for the day, the effervescent garden designer, Tony Murrell. Vetiver is apparently being widely promoted in Auckland for its erosion control capability. I looked it up. It puts its roots down four metres in the first year alone and is hardy to drought, prolonged flooding, fire, some frost and grazing. The roots can go down as far as six metres. By this stage, my eyebrows were pretty much reaching my hairline but it is apparently sterile and non-invasive so it doesn’t spread. And if you change your mind about it, you can use herbicides on it, though I can’t imagine digging it out without heavy machinery.

Personally, I wouldn’t be rushing to plant something that grows quite so strongly but we don’t suffer from erosion or land that slips so we don’t need something quite as drastic. If you prefer to use native plants, there are many references on-line that will give various options, such as here.

The view from the deck in city suburbia

From there, it was to see four smaller, city gardens. I had seen all of them before but not for several years. When you live in a densely populated city, sometimes with long thin sections that are not a great deal wider than your house, this sort of vista is pretty amazing. It is in Glendowie and the owners of the two open gardens had the wisdom to buy properties that looked outwards to reserve so there is a seamless visual flow. Added to that, the row of houses have maximised what was once more or less wasteland that runs along the base of the properties. You wouldn’t want to go swimming or paddling in this water (I am guessing most of it is stormwater, supplemented by springs), but it is a delightful, sheltered common space at the end of the gardens.

The light was too bright and the shadows too deep to do justice to this cluster of bromeliads but I particularly noted it because it was a counterpoint to the vibrant and bright use of bromeliads mentioned in the first post of these two. This was restrained and understated but maybe more charming for that.

From there it was to a garden I have written about before – industrial chic I called it then and I did not change my mind on a second visit. Quirky, detailed and full of energy. I don’t want to own it but it makes me laugh. It is also on the market, should you feel such admiration that you want to own it. Although it is such a personal creation that the future owners may feel imposter’s syndrome until they make it their own. I would have taken more photos, but there wasn’t much room to move with so many people and rather a lot of accoutrements.

The box-shaped plant in the centre of the photo is the purple loropetalum.

Finally a gem of a garden, to which I returned as a private visitor the next day so I could have a closer look with the owners, Geoffrey Marshall and John Hayward (who also happen to be the Heroic Festival organisers). They are friends who will read this, so I don’t want to seem as if I am fawning, but if my lot in life was to be a tiny town section, this would be my personal choice. Despite its small size, good architectural design has given it total privacy and a good garden design has given it a sense of containment without being cramped. The level of refinement and detail is exquisite. The foliage is layer upon layer of detail without looking cluttered and the level of plant interest is extremely high. Wherever I looked, there was more fine detail to be uncovered with just the right amount of exotica. It takes a skilled eye and sure hand to be able to achieve that level of detail without it looking confused.

It seems a good place to finish my weekend of looking at the gardens of Auckland.

 

Auckland Heroic gardens. Part one (of two)

My impetus for heading to Auckland last week was to enjoy the final Heroic Garden Festival. After 23 years, this was to be the end of this successful fundraiser, in its current form at least. It is always interesting to look at other people’s gardens, even if they garden in a totally different environment and style. These were predominantly small urban gardens in a densely populated city, which usually means very close neighbours.

I will just offer you edited highlights, starting with this tiny garden (well, tiny by my standards) where the backyard pool was both pretty and thoughtfully constructed. In a very tight space where the water feature is within the outdoor entertaining area, safety is an issue and that outer decorative grill should give warning to most guests who may take a backward step without looking.

I am always interested to see where the work and service areas are contained in small gardens. One of the aspects of growing many plants in containers that is rarely shown on TV is that a work area for repotting is needed. I nodded approvingly at this one – attractive but functional and pleasant to use.

I failed entirely to find the work area for this garden although I think I read on their information sheet that it is screened from view out the back somewhere. I wish I had spotted it because I would have liked to have seen what the scale and set-up was. The very bright light conditions and crowds of people mitigated against getting photos that do justice to this garden which is a pity because it was a truly remarkable example of a garden of obsession. Whether I like it or not (and it was not my style at all) is gloriously irrelevant. I was in awe at the scale and the attention to detail. It was absolutely immaculate down to every last plant – the vast majority of which are in pots. Anything that looks a little marked or ‘off’ is clearly whipped out the back and replaced with a healthy substitute. It is all hand-watered, by owners who understand the differing water needs of each and every plant. It is also vibrantly colourful.

It would not be out of place in the book ‘Gardens of Obsession’ , which reminds me that I must find our copy and have another look at it.  There was a single-minded focus and clarity of vision in painting with bromeliads that made this garden quite remarkable in its own way, along with a cultural heritage that reflects our growing connection with Asia as much as Auckland. I was unconvinced by the description of it in the programme as being ‘low maintenance’ and ‘family-friendly’. Yes, it is a private, family garden, a suburban section in Pakuranga, and has a pool out the back but I do not think anyone can attain this level of attention to detail and painting with plants without considerable effort and skill. It is open by appointment if you want to be amazed.  Just suspend all preconceptions and personal preferences as you enter.

The waterfall is now the main visitor entrance and has nestled into its setting as the trees have grown

From there, we headed out to ‘Ayrlies’, Bev McConnell’s renowned garden, which could not be more different. I have been there several times before but not for quite a while. For us, it is an interesting comparator, being of a similar size and scale to how we garden but created and maintained with a larger budget and more gardening staff. The highlight of this garden for me, personally, remains the taxodiums by the bottom pond with their wonderful nubbly protrusions referred to as knees.

The nubbly growths in the centre of the photograph are usually referred to as knees

We have extensive experience in opening our own garden in the past (over 20 years of it, in fact) and I have amassed a fair amount of experience in garden visiting over the years – more than Mark who is happy to stay at home and look at my photos on my return. We used to get driven nuts at garden-opener meetings when owners of small, city gardens would declare: “People like to see small gardens that they can relate to.” I can still hear the inimitable Biddy Barrett retorting, “That is what people say to you in your garden. Nobody has ever said that to me in our garden,” because Biddy and Russ had a very large garden.

Whimsy at Ayrlies and given the context and the event, I feel personal opinion is irrelevant. They will make some people smile while others may raise their eyebrows.

If you only ever go to see gardens that relate to your own garden at home in size and scale, if you only see garden visiting as an exercise in purloining other people’s ideas to apply to your own patch, then you miss out on so much. I would have missed out on the immaculate exuberance of the Pakuranga bromeliad garden. Many of you would miss out on the varied experiences of Ayrlies.

I include the pink and yellow specifically for loyal reader Marge M H, she who likes the colour combination whereas, were it my garden, I would be removing either the rudbeckia or the pink belladonnas from this scene

A cautionary tale (with advice for active gardeners)

A cautionary tale this weekend: last week my foot encountered a stick. The skin abrasion was so minor that I didn’t worry about it, though when it started to show signs of infection rather than recovery three days later, I reached for antiseptic salves and bandaids. Two days on from there, when my whole foot was swelling rapidly, I took advice and headed in for urgent after-hours care at the hospital. Yup, cellulitis – the bacterial infection was spreading rapidly into the surrounding soft tissue and skin.

I have been in this situation before, about 20 years ago. In that case, I knew I was in trouble within three hours of puncturing my foot and went for medical attention. Unfortunately, that escalated over the next week to the point where I became an emergency admission to hospital for surgery and then a four-night stay on intravenous antibiotics. In that case, the problem was that the bacteria, just a particular strain of E coli, was resistant to all but the remaining last-line-of-defence hospital-only antibiotics but it took a week of spiralling infection and ineffective antibiotics before that was ascertained. I was understandably nervous about this scenario repeating itself but fortunately, this time the bacteria responded to the more common antibiotics that are tried first. My foot is fine now but I still have another four days of antibiotics to take to finish the course.

Ringing at the back of my mind is my mother’s oft-repeated anecdote that the first autopsy my father ever carried out was on a man who died of a whitlow – a hang nail. That would have been before antibiotics were widely available because my father qualified in the later 1930s. I bet the victim developed cellulitis from that minor skin tear and it all spiralled out of control from there.

The left foot is just a little swollen today but I shall no longer garden in my jandals.

What is disturbing is that our future holds a return to this past if antibiotic resistance continues to grow. It is genuinely worrying. Without being too neurotic about it, the lesson we have learned is to keep a close eye on the minor injuries that we often sustain as part of our gardening activities. I have heard of major complications being caused originally by rose thorns. I am telling myself that I must garden in closed shoes, though that wouldn’t have helped me this time because I was just wandering out to pick up a couple of ripe rock melons to give away. I am not going to put on protective boots every time I go out the back door.

For overseas readers living in countries where medical attention is a personal cost, the total charge for my recent experience (hospital care at Accident and Emergency, a precautionary tetanus injection, antibiotics and after-care if required) was … $5. Yes, $5 for the dispensary charge on the extended course of antibiotics. I am feeling very kindly towards paying taxes this week.