New Year New Zealand style – Matariki

Opening right on cue with Matariki and the winter solstice, Magnolia campbellii var campbellii, albeit against a leaden, wintry sky

The winter solstice this year is this coming Tuesday, 21 June. On Wednesday, we can wake in the knowledge that we are past the shortest day of the year. The days will grow longer again, imperceptibly at first but the cumulative effect means we will start to notice soon enough.

Next Friday, on June 24 we celebrate Matariki with a public holiday for the first time. Matariki marks the rising of the Pleiades star formation and the new moon which means that traditionally it covers a longer period but it has been narrowed to the one special day on the calendar of public holidays. It is the Maori new year and it is a source of awe to me that in pre-European settlement days, Maori determined the commencement of a new year which closely corresponds with the seasonality of the European new year with its arbitrary date of January 1.

For me, Matariki is synonymous with the flowering of the campbelliis and the start of a new year of gardening

I regard Matariki as a marker in time which is relevant to our country in a way that the northern new year and Queen’s Birthday are not. Because I am not a fan of winter, the declaration of hope that the year is changing and spring is just around the corner lifts my spirits. And my spirits certainly need lifting in the current run of unrelenting leaden skies punctuated by rain.

The Powderham Street campbelliis have a lovely location beside the Huatoki Stream and can be viewed from the road above so the dominant view is looking down or at least across at eye level

On the first cold day of winter here this week – the first day that has seen me needing to wear a coat – I went to town. And yes, right on cue, the campbellii magnolias are indeed in bloom. These are the pink Quaker Mason form of M. campbellii var campbellii which is the most widely grown selection around here. I photograph and write about them every year and I am not at all sure that I have anything new add but the emotional response I have to seeing these magnificent trees coming into bloom on or near the darkest day of the year never dims.

As usual, the three trees on Powderham Street in New Plymouth by the Huatoki Stream have a fair number of blooms already open although they won’t be at their peak until mid July.

The last gasp of autumn – the golden Ginkgo biloba to the left of the church…
and the promise of spring with Magnolia campbellii to the right.

I think the tree in the grounds of St John the Baptist Church is Waitara is matching it for open blooms. All these trees are in sheltered positions, very close to the coast and, being urban, surrounded by large amounts of concrete and tarseal which warm the areas they are planted. I like the juxtaposition of the gingko to the left of the church in its golden raiment and the magnolia to the right opening to its pink glory. Autumn meets spring in the churchyard of Waitara.

The promise of much to come on our tree of M. campbellii

Our tree in the park is always later. We are about 5km inland and our tree is in a colder position and that can make a difference of ten days or more to the blooming. But we have the first few blooms showing colour although not yet fully open, with the promise of many more to come.

I managed to line up one of the first blooms just opening on our tree with a rare patch of blue this week

Spring is just around the corner.

The flower to the left is an immature Stenocarpus bloom. When fully open, it has long clusters of red stamens as seen just above

Unrelated, but picked up in our park, I like decayed leaf skeletons. In this case I think it is a leaf from Magnolia insignis, formerly Manglietia insignis. The curious pin-wheel item beside it is an immature flower from the Stenocarpus, probably sinuatus, or Queensland Firewheel Tree.  To be honest, our specimen of this tree is so tall and the flowers are so high up that we largely notice them only as the fallen red stamens on the leaf litter below. They are sometimes used as street trees in warmer areas both in their homeland of Australia and California and, when pruned and shaped and in a warmer climate, the flowering appears to be showier than here. I assume this flower head was blown off the tree before it could open fully. How amazing is that structure of the flower cluster?

Groomin’ grasses

The Court Garden in winter

I do not subscribe to the notion of no maintenance gardening. There is low maintenance gardening, lower, lowish, high and very high maintenance gardening. The grasses are generally on the lower side of the spectrum.  

Before on the Stipa gigantea

I certainly don’t groom ornamental grasses in wilder, more naturalistic settings but the Court Garden requires some quite precise maintenance to keep its looks, although it is not usually onerous. This train of thought came about because I have been grooming the Stipa gigantea and that has been more major than I anticipated. At least I have worked out that every established clump is putting up maybe 40 flower spikes which is a lot, really. But there are 24 large plants of it in that garden (yes, I counted!) and every one takes up to an hour for a thorough dead heading and grooming out the dead leaves with a few also needing to be reduced in size. It is not such low maintenance and it is entirely optional but the plants do look tidier for it.

and after on the Stipa gigantea. There is at least half a barrow load per plant removed.

The lowest maintenance option are the deciduous grasses that just get cut down to the ground. That is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’. We also cut down Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Overdam’ which are not deciduous but look pretty scruffy and of no merit by late autumn. We have plenty of other evergreen plant material in that garden that gives winter interest and, when cut down, the calamagrostis return with pristine fresh foliage in spring.

Cut to the ground. Maybe don’t try this with clumps that have yet to establish well because you may run the risk of them rotting out over winter but ours are now solid plants.

If you have a very sharp spade and sufficient strength, it is possible to reduce the size of the clumps when they are cut down without having to lift the plants and disturb the roots. I have our Zach with a sharp spade to do this very job, as he has done on the calamagrostis last week and will do on and miscanthus that are looking too large when we cut those down soon.

A simple tool, cheap enough and sometimes sold here as a flax cutter. Along with my homemade arm protectors and garden gloves.

For cutting down grasses or perennials, buy yourself one of these very handy little tools with serrated teeth and a curved blade. I think I bought my latest one described as a ‘flax cutter’.

Chionochloa flavicans at the front with an unnamed red phormium or flax and the rather large Austroderia fulvida or proper toetoe behind.

Our native Chionochloa flavicans (dwarf toe toe) has a reputation for ‘whiffing off’, as Mark is wont to say. In other words, it grows beautifully for a few years and then starts dying out. I feel that the proper toetoe we grow – Austroderia fulvida – is showing signs of the same trait and I put it down to a build-up of detritus and dead foliage in the middle of the plants. In the wild, it will be part of the natural cycle; in the garden, we don’t want to cope with half dead plants needing replacement. My theory is that if I keep the plants cleaned out, they won’t suffer that fate. Ask me in five years’ time if I am right on that. I cleaned the plants up in summer, after flowering. The chionochloa were fine to do and did look better for it. The mature toetoe were not much fun to groom because, like a number of our native grasses, they are a form of cutty grass and cut they do. I always wear gloves and I also covered my arms but my ears, my ears! Those very long leaves can cut ears readily. At least it is only a once-a-year job.

The adjustable metal leaf rake, long handled hand rake and flax cutter

The Stipa gigantea does not cut flesh and is probably fine to be left without intensive grooming. I have never done it this thoroughly before so maybe it is overkill or maybe just something to do every few years. You can take the Monty Don of BBC ‘Gardener’s World’ approach and just use your hands as a comb to pull out the dead leaves. He doesn’t even wear gloves that I have seen so I guess they don’t have cutty grasses. I have used the metal leaf rake before and that does a pretty good job when you have room to move around the plants. This time I got in for a thorough clean using our useful little hand rake that you won’t be able to buy at the garden centre. Mark tells me it once  belonged to his father but that he replaced the broken handle with a beautifully whittled, sanded and oiled handle that is longer than the original. Not only is this a useful implement for getting in to plants, it is also very nice to handle.

Chionochloa rubra
Anemanthele lessoniana

A few of the grasses don’t need much attention at all – notably our native Chionochloa rubra (red tussock) and Anemanthele lessoniana (gossamer grass). They may need digging and dividing every few years to reduce their size in a garden situation, but they don’t need routine maintenance, bar weeding out the many self-sown seedlings of anemanthele. It is the only prolific seeder we are using in the Court Garden. The miscanthus throws a few seedlings; the stipa is sterile; the others I have yet to find seedlings of (a thick mulch discourages seed germination) but the anemanthele… It is just as well it is both native and has merit because it certainly seeds down.


Finally, may I introduce Ralph? Ralph came to us from the city pound. He is a little larger than our usual grade of dog but he has settled in here instantly with no doubt that this is his home. Life is terribly exciting for Ralph with so many interesting smells. He is constantly on the move outside and most of my photos end up being a passing blur. But he makes us laugh and it seems that everybody loves a scruffy dog. Come the evening, tired Ralph decides he is now a lap dog and that can be a bit challenging with one his size.  Engaging but challenging.

Ralph, briefly sitting down to order, in the Wild North Garden – or dog heaven as he prefers to call it

Falling trees

First published in the May issue of Woman magazine. This is what one might call a retrospective view of the impact of Cyclone Dovi back in February and what it might indicate for the future with climate change.

“Imagine if trees gave off wifi signals, we would be planting so many trees, we would probably save the planet, too. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.”

social media meme

I did not have ‘hit by cyclone’ on my personal bingo card of climate change risk. Rising sea levels, flooding, mini tornado (we get a few of those in our area), slips, droughts – I had mentally considered all those scenarios.

We dropped the large abies two years ago as a precautionary move lest it fall on the house and when Dovi hit, we were very glad of that.

Indeed, we made the decision two years ago to drop the one big tree that could fall on our house and pretty much demolish it. It was a handsome Abies procera glauca, also known as the blue Noble Fir, planted by my late father-in-law about 70 years ago. We were sad to see it go but it seemed a wise precaution at the time.

It seemed an even wiser decision when we took a direct hit from Cyclone Dovi in mid February. As massive trees crashed down around us, we could at least take comfort from the thought the abies was not going to fall on us as we sheltered indoors.

When Cyclone Bola hit parts of Taranaki and then the East Coast in 1988, it largely bypassed our little corner of the countryside. The winds were strong but nothing too far out of the ordinary.  New Zealand is a windy country and we are used to that, but there hadn’t been any cyclones in our area in the intervening 34 years which is why I hadn’t put it on my mental bingo card.

At 150 years old, our massive old Pinus radiata trees are weighed down with epiphytes and nearing the end of their life.

I garden on a fairly expansive scale, with my husband, Mark. It is a property that has been handed down the generations of his family since 1870 and we know who planted which trees and when. Some of the trees are now 150 years old, planted by Thomas Jury, and we know the old pine trees are pretty much at the end of their life. They are not helped by the fact Thomas’s son, Bertrum Jury, topped them at about 10 metres high in the early years of last century. It didn’t stop the pines from growing and the biggest are now up to 45 metres but with a weak point where Bertrum cut them. We have had some snap off at that point and others that uproot entirely and fall.

Why, you may wonder, do we not bite the bullet and get all the pines felled? It is just too big a job. We can’t get heavy machinery into that part of the property and it would probably have to be done by a massive logging helicopter. We are not in that financial league and, where those trees are, when they fall, it is only our property that gets damaged so they are not a risk to others.

The belladonna lilies flowered on, unperturbed by the fallen gum tree. I measured the diameter of the tree and the main section was two metres across. We cut the root ball and base free from the trunk and used heavy machinery to push the base back upright to create a more attractive gardening environment.

Besides, we can cope when big trees fall one at a time. We are used to that and can go in and do an efficient and speedy clean-up. Losing several at once, as we did with Cyclone Dovi, was rather different. It wasn’t just the damage from falling pine trees; we also lost a giant gum (eucalyptus) at our road entrance that was also 150 years old and Mark literally had tears in his eyes when he found another abies – a baby at just 70 years but one of our most handsome trees – uprooted in the park and lying over our high bridge. Those were just the largest trees. There were smaller trees and branches down everywhere.

The sheer scale of damage from fallen trees after Cyclone Dovi left us paralysed by shock for two days.

Mark and I went into shock for the first two days, paralysed by the scale of the clean-up task that lay ahead. Fortunately, most of it was garden damage, not structural damage, and we have good people around us. It did not look so overwhelming when we eventually got power and running water restored and the most urgent areas were being cleared. A fair number of homes in our local town of Waitara will be heated by firewood and pine cones after I offered both free, on a local Facebook page.

We cut back the fallen pine on the left to clear the path and it will eventually collapse to the ground but it perches somewhat like a giant lizard in the midst of woodland garden.

When big trees fall, our approach is now tried and true. Attempting to remove the fallen tree in its entirety would cause huge amounts of additional damage to the area and add considerable expense. We go in and remove all the debris, the foliage and side branches on the tree. We will cut through the trunk where it is blocking paths or access but we leave the main length lying where it fell.

I use ‘we’ in the royal sense. I do not chainsaw and I would not like to mislead with a mental image of me in work boots and ear muffs wielding a noisy chainsaw. My strengths lie more in the lighter aspects of cleaning up and reinstating gardens around the remaining trunks.

These two pine trees fell eight or nine years ago and we left the main lengths where they lay, gardening around them and allowing epiphytes to establish as they gently decay.

Within a year, we can have those fallen trunks nestled into the garden with plants thriving on and around them and they can gently decay over the years. Instant, unplanned stumperies, one could say, or a pragmatic gardening solution.

The conundrum is that we know one of the ways to mitigate climate change is to plant many trees. Big trees. Long-lived trees. A dwarf apple or maple is not going to contribute to saving the world. But with climate change, we know also that we will get more extreme weather events and that can bring those big trees down.

Power companies and linesmen are not tree-lovers.  I can understand why when I saw trees on three roads around us bring down lines in the cyclone. I was relieved that none of them were our trees. It is a fine line to tread. We monitor our trees that could endanger power lines or buildings and have already dropped some that we deemed too risky.

The answers seem to be: plant trees, lots of trees if you have space, not just for future generations and to help the planet but also for the pleasure of watching them grow. But choose the spots carefully so that they have a chance of reaching maturity without threatening power lines or buildings and without casting unwanted shade on either your own house or the neighbours.

Circles of pine trunk now define the edges of a pathway

Don’t believe the heights given on commercial plant labels – these are often conjured out of thin air to make the tree seem less threatening to the customer or, at best, are what might be expected in the short to mid-term. If space is limited, consider narrow, columnar trees that give height and grace without spreading or casting much shade. Trees which stay lower often spread widely instead, taking up much more space without giving stature in a garden. 

Think long term. Some trees can live hundreds of years. While a tree can achieve some size in 20 years, they are not mature – not by a long shot. From about 40 years on, you can start to claim you have mature trees. Trees are generally low maintenance, but that does not mean no maintenance.

We will be keeping a closer eye on our higher risk trees after Cyclone Dovi.

Bye bye bangalow

But what do we have here?

The Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, commonly known as Bangalow Palms, are no more. We have been talking about cutting them down for several years and we have finally done it. The first we felled in the recent clean-up after Cyclone Dovi. It was in an area with a huge mess to be dealt with  already and it seemed the right time to get rid of it. Zach dropped the second one this week.

This is just the very top of a pretty tall bangalow

I say we had two but really, we had two very tall specimens – and eleventy thousand seedlings. They were handsome enough with a tropical jungle look and posed no problems until they started setting seed. And boy do they set seed.

The bangalows had very straight trunks with an attractive enough top knot but they were outstripping even the extension ladder. We have better options we can grow.

For the first few years, Mark would get out the extension ladder and cut the seed off. But they kept growing taller to somewhere around 12 or 15 metres and we kept growing older; this approach was not exactly sustainable. We decided they were expendable. I am sick of weeding out all the bangalow seedlings.

We see them here, we see them there. We see those pesky seedlings everywhere.
It will take a few years to eliminate the last of the seeds

Archontophoenix cunninghamiana is an Australian palm from northern New South Wales. By my definition, native plants in their natural environment, or even just in their homeland, are not weeds. Seedlings can be surplus to requirements. I never describe our native nikau palm or even pongas (tree ferns) as weeds even though we have an abundance of them that we regularly thin out. They belong here.

Just a few leftovers from the massive seed set from the last season.

Introduced plants are different. I see Brazil has a major problem with the bangalow outcompeting some of their native species and I think we are on a similar track in this country. Because it is so widely grown and sold commercially, that horse has probably bolted already. However, this does not stop us from taking responsibility for our own plants and stopping them from spreading. They will colonise much faster than our nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida).

Weed though it is, those flower racemes are pretty

I have seen more than enough of their seedheads over the years – huge amounts of red berries that are attractive to our native fruit-eating birds, particularly kereru, so spread widely by them. I can not say I had ever noticed their flowers before because they are so high up. Zach reverently carried over their flowers to show me. I say reverently because, weed or not, the flowers are exquisite in form and colour. Nature can be beautiful in so many different ways.

When survival of a species rests on a single plant

Our native Tecomanthe speciosa is quite the clmbing vine over time

Plant collectors and the nursery trade don’t always have the proudest record when it comes to preserving desirable plant species in the wild. It was the habit of stripping material for commercial gain that saw flora as well as fauna being protected by CITES*.  But there are exceptions and our native climber, Tecomanthe speciosa, is one example.

It was down to just the one, single, solitary specimen ever found and I think it is still down to just the one plant in the wild. Arguably it is the nursery trade and the popularising of it as a garden plant that saved it from extinction.

The same situation applies to Pennantia baylisiana, found at the same time on the same island. We have that growing in our garden too. One of the species of our native kakabeak, Clianthus puniceus, has never been reduced to just one plant but it is critically endangered with just one small location in the wild on Moturemu Island in the Kaipara Harbour. Circulating these plants in the garden trade doesn’t alter the situation of them being endangered in the wild due to loss of habitat, but it does stop them being wiped out entirely.

Tecomanthe speciosa setting flowers down its woody stems in very late autumn. The foliage in the photo is unrelated.

The  tecomanthe was found on Manawatāwhi (formerly referred to as the Great Island in the Three Kings group to the north west off the top tip of New Zealand. It was found in 1946 and it is thought that the introduction of goats to the island had led to the extinction of all but the remaining plant. I understand the goats were introduced to provide food for shipwrecked sailors. With the eradication of goats, vegetation on that island has regenerated to the point where that last plant has become heavily shaded and  it has hardly flowered since that year of discovery.

The tecomanthe is climbing vine, subtropical and therefore frost tender but well adapted to coastal conditions. Its foliage is relatively large, lush and shiny and I can’t get a photo because it is all right up on top, maybe 10 metres above. Fortunately, it doesn’t only flower right at the top but can put clusters of blooms out on its bare lower lengths of vine.  

I didn’t know until I looked it up that T. speciosa is best grown from fresh seed and can flower within a couple of years whereas it takes much longer for a cutting-grown plant to start flowering. I am guessing most plants sold in the trade are cutting grown.

The potential is there for this vine to become a gnarly old plant – as ours has – with very thick trunks which may smother and even fell the host tree it clambers up for support but that will take many decades. I have seen tecomanthes trained along front verandahs but they do need training and pruning. Left to their own devices, they may rip the guttering off the house if you turn your back on them but at least you can get most of the flowering at eye-level with a bit of effort. It is probably safer to train a plant along a fence or a wall but whatever location is chosen, it needs a strong support.

Our Tecomanthe venusta needs to be grown under cover but it also flowers on bare wood, although in summer, not autumn. It doesn’t always flower quite as prolifically as this but it is showy.

We grow two other tecomanthe species but both are more tender than T. speciosa because they come from New Guinea. Tecomanthe venusta (syn dendrophylla) needs to be under the cover of a verandah this far south but can be grown outdoors in Northland. The dainty one we have as T. montana (which may or may not be the correct botanical name) is arguably the prettiest of the three. We did have T. hillii which is native to Queensland but it succumbed to neglect.

I think Tecomanthe montana is the prettiest flower. It blooms in spring.

None of the tecomanthe species are common in New Zealand but only one of them is extra special for the patriotic gardener. Fancy being a direct descendant of the one sole, surviving plant. They don’t come more endangered than that.

*CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

Fallen blooms on Tecomanthe speciosa